This book arose from a desire we have had for a long time to pass on our experiences of how children with autism can improve their social skills by playing together in a group.
It was developed from the experiences described in Autism and Play by Jannik Beyer and Lone Gammeltoft (1998) and is based on the theoretical frame of reference described in that book.
This book is intended to be a source of ideas with practical examples of group games targeted at children with autism spectrum disorder (hereafter referred to as children with autism). The ideas can be used by both parents and professionals.
Playing occupies a large part of a child’s life, and playing and childhood belong together. Through playing the child develops a variety of skills, not least in the social and emotional area. A child will always find a space in which to play, and playing is also recognized as children’s very own occupation – their way of‘being’ and expressing themselves.
The impulse to play is spontaneous for the children – they play because they just can’t help it. Playing is an end in itself.
When children play together they intuitively prepare themselves to tune into a kind of common ‘transmitter/receiver channel’ with a high degree of mutual attention to each other. This means that very early on in life they practise listening: waiting for and reacting to each other’s signals – all that is implied in social interaction. They learn basic social rules in a natural context; for instance that you have to take turns and that you cannot choose or win every time.
Through playing children build up close emotional relations, in which they both copy and test themselves against each other. Playing is an activity driven by pleasure and can involve joy, enthusiasm, absorption, excitement, anger and seriousness – whatever heightens the experience. All in all, playing must be considered fundamentally important to the development of the child.
Some children, for various reasons, do not have a natural approach to playing – and children with autism, among others, belong to this group. Children with autism find it difficult to interact socially with one another – and consequently they are often seen as children who can’t learn to play with others. But if the play is organized by grown-ups on the children’s terms, the children find a common platform where – through play – they can gain social experiences, which otherwise can be difficult for them to obtain.
When we talk about play, we are primarily concerned with the social aspect of it, focussing on the interaction between children without the intervention of grown-ups. The social world is difficult to explain. We only get to understand it by engaging with it. One way for children with autism to do this is for them to play with their peers, whether they are other children with autism or other learning difficulties or their brothers or sisters.
The games described in this book can be enjoyed by and be of benefit to any child, and they are designed such that even if the children do not understand their purpose, that need not put them off playing.
The games that we describe all take place in a very organized setting, which gives the children the chance to see each other taking the initiative and relating to each other. The games are all based on actual and visual materials used in ordinary children’s play. There are examples of how a play environment can be built up through careful organization and the use of visual cues, and how the togetherness of children at play can promote social awareness.
The purpose is to create a forum for children where a joint agenda and a shared understanding of what they are doing together ensures a common focus of attention. Clearly setting out the agenda using visual cues helps the children understand what they are going to be doing together and can help them moderate their own impulses and ideas.
Clearly defined limits, both physical and abstract, help children with autism to concentrate on each other and in that way to respond appropriately in a social atmosphere.
As the social aspect is very difficult to clarify and visualize, the starting point for the shared experience must be a concrete and visual stimulus. At the outset we took part in the games with the children, but eventually we discovered that our presence was too obtrusive – we were interfering with the interaction between the children. From that time onwards we realized that we had to be invisible to provide space for the children to observe each other. We altered the parts so that we handed over the stage to the children and became ‘stage managers’, providing support through our work ‘backstage’.
As the games are simple and visually clear, the children do not need any special instructions. Of course there are exceptions when the grown-up can either teach the games to the children one by one or participate in the group until the new game is known to everybody.
The games must be continuously adjusted and adapted to each individual child and group so that the children get the degree of visual support that they need.
It is a good idea to videotape the children playing, so that it is not only possible to see what succeeded and/or failed but also to find out what the children think is fun – which can be something completely different from what we imagined.
A playgroup can consist of two to six children. The children are chosen according to a variety of criteria: temperament, level of social development, personality and interests. For instance, it can be an advantage to put together a temperamental girl with calmer friends or a quiet, cautious boy with younger children. A game session typically lasts from 15 to 60 minutes.