How to keep an autistic 3 year old occupied

I am a firm believer that kids should be allowed to get bored and figure out their own activities. Trust me, I’ve read the books. Yes, I like the idea of activities. Things like swimming lessons and music lessons. I would have done all of that with Michael if I had the chance. And I often feel very jealous of parents that get to do that (although they no doubt have no idea how anyone could feel that way!).

I have always planned to repress that ‘overplanning’ and ‘overteaching’ instinct. One sport and one music activity per week was going to be my limit. I know a lot of mums that spend all day doing stimulating activities with their toddlers. And I think that’s them justifying to themselves that those years of university were worthwhile. It is not necessary.

Kids can occupy themselves. And it’s really good for them to learn to do so. My parents never would have even considered spending hours every day doing craft activities with me. I don’t think they ever spent even half an hour playing tea parties. I used to get up on the weekends and read to myself until they felt like getting up and then we all had breakfast together.

But with Michael things are different. Not just because I can’t take him to any of those activities – since he doesn’t understand instructions and it takes me a year just to teach him to float. But also because he entertains himself easily. In many ways, autistic kids are the easiest kids. Several parents have told me their autistic child is easier than their other kids (eating and sleeping issues aside). Because they occupy themselves so easily. The problem is that they don’t learn as much when they are on their own as other kids do, so they need encouragement.

Michael is not entirely like that. He doesn’t play with toys – he doesn’t understand how and finds them uninteresting. He doesn’t line them up, or do puzzles, or read books. Michael is still very easy to entertain though. He spends his day running backwards and forwards, stimming with any random box off the ground, watching the iPad, and rolling around on the beds. I must admit he has a lot of fun doing these things. Sometimes when he runs back and forward he starts laughing so hard he falls over. It’s wonderful to see. And he spends plenty of time doing it, so I can have lunch. But it’s not very productive.

Importance of being occupied

What pains me about this is that all this time, he is not learning. He is zoning out. Most children learn from when they wake up in the morning until they fall asleep at night. They are learning social skills, playing together, figuring out cause and effect, using their imaginations. ‘I wonder what happens if I do this’. Michael spends his day pursuing sensations. Another child might run in order to play with someone – to catch someone, to kick a ball, to have a look at what is going on in the other room.

Sometimes Michael does this too, but most of the time he is just running because he likes running. This is of course very zen. I’m sure he’d make a fantastic Buddhist monk. He is great at living in the moment. But it also contributes a lot to the lack of skills and the delays in cognitive function.

We can’t do therapy with Michael all the time. It is physically impossible and if we tried it, both he and we would get very frustrated. He gets his six hours of therapy in a day, has eleven hours of sleep (if we’re lucky), spends a couple of hours having meals and that still leaves five hours a day to fill. And of course I do not want them all to be filled with an iPad and stimming. Yet actually getting him to do something productive is incredibly difficult. Motivating him to learn (and by learning of course I mean play with a toy or look at a book, not learning complex mathematics) must be done with a ‘reinforcer’ and very active therapy. These days, at 32 weeks pregnant, this is beyond me.

Michael is outdoors most of his non therapy time

So we take him out. All the time. When Michael wakes up and has breakfast, my husband takes him to a park immediately. Where he still runs backwards and forwards, but it’s easier to channel that into a useful activity. Something like going down a slide, taking turns with someone on the swing, or going for a bushwalk, is much better use of his time. Plus he is getting plenty of fresh air and exercise. And the opportunity to see other kids. He then goes out again after lunch and often between dinner and bedtime too.

I take him to parks, to the aquatic centre, or just for walks along the streets. He practices walking while holding hands, he watches the birds, the river, and sometimes gets chased by the other kids. And it’s actually lately been a lot of fun for us to take him out. Watching him happy and laughing and enjoying the world is what parenting is all about.

We organize outings for Michael on the weekends too. Some activities require two of us. I couldn’t possibly run after Michael on the beach, as well as bringing all the pieces of equipment we need. Or take him for a walk along the river. So these things we do together. We take him to restaurants (occasionally), explore new playgrounds, and even travel now and then. Sometimes we put huge amounts of effort into taking him out, and then have to come back in fifteen minutes. But we keep trying.

Finding the right balance

It is very hard to find the right balance with these activities. On the one hand, we definitely don’t want to push him to do things just because he ‘should be’ doing them. So if we take him to a birthday party and he just really doesn’t want to be in a particular place and finds it very overwhelming, I will take him out.

My rule is to try a few times, gently, and then give him a break. Then to come back in an hour and try again. I am a little more firm with situations that I can’t leave and that are important to get used to. Things like waiting in line, going to a shopping centre, are important life skills and I stick to them a bit more. Although I do them in off peak times, and never with a ‘big shop’ only a little run to get milk.

If he really wants to escape a situation and asks for it I always let him. This way we avoid meltdowns. Some activities I just avoid to begin with. Things like theme parks, indoor play centres (especially on weekends), or activities that involve a lot of sun and no shade. It is extremely rare for me to force Michael to stay somewhere he really doesn’t want to go or to drag him anywhere. Dragging him away from places sometimes happens. But in general my approach is to put him in situations that make him slightly uncomfortable, leave him there for a bit longer than last time, and then allow him to retreat. I am giving him a chance to learn to like the activity. Not forcing him if he doesn’t.

Staying Busy at Home

At home it can be much harder to keep him occupied. But it is still possible. I might jump with him on the bed, sing to him, put on some music. Even just being near him while he is watching cartoons gives us lots of opportunities to socialize or cuddle. It just brings us closer together. He can request things using his PECS book, or watch me talk on the phone. He follows me into the bathroom (and I tell myself that this is a GOOD thing). Or encouraging him to occasionally play with a toy, look at a book. For Michael, social play is key. Songs with actions, tickles, being spun in his Ikea egg chair, being bounced in his therapy swing, lying with me on his giant pillow.

You can call it a sensory diet if you like. To me it is just ‘stopping him from being destructive by channelling his energy’.

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