For the next few weeks I plan on highlighting some amazing ideas I have learned from the book: The Activity Kit for Babies and Toddlers at Risk (Fein, Deborah et al. 2016). While the title focuses on young children, these ideas can be applied to many ages as the concept is researched and based on longitudinal work. The book uses the term “self-absorbed behaviors” and “stereotypical behaviors” as a child who is engaging in “repetitive stereotypic movements or play; talking to himself by repeating scripts from TV shows, songs, and books; or looking at inanimate objects for extend periods of time and ignoring people.” These characteristics are often seen in children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
As a parent, teacher or therapist, you may have seen children engage in these behaviors within your home or the school setting. I have observed students making laps around the room flapping objects in front of their face, collecting all of the markers in the room and holding onto them/dropping them behind chairs, flicking play kitchen items or spinning wheels in front of their eyes. There are many different behaviors that may be observed and it’s also important to note that this doesn’t distinctly mean an ASD diagnosis, this is just as a reference for this post. These types of behaviors also make joint attachment more difficult to establish which in turn puts them at a higher risk for social and emotional milestones. If your student or child is completely 24/7 absorbed in their own world, they will be less likely to pay attention to facial expressions or attempt to gain attention from adults and peers.
“What you want to do is to take every opportunity to get the child’s attention, make yourself a source of fun, and make interacting with you so enjoyable that you’ll be able to compete with the interest he finds in those solitary activities” (The Activity Kit for Babies and Toddlers at Risk (Fein, Deborah et al. 2016)
Same, but different!
Our goal is to interrupt and redirect, which can be so hard when kiddos just walk away or do not seem to be paying attention. If they’re ignoring you then the imitation will not be useful, so show fun play by using the same object but in a different way. Even if it’s for 20 seconds, you can keep building on this! Example: your student loves spinning the wheels of a toy car over and over, if you try and take the toy, he becomes upset. Grab another toy car and show with enthusiasm how you race them together down a ramp! Maybe he looks up for a brief second at you and you roll the cars down his arms and back making him laugh. He may then begin to seek out the rolling of the cars on his arms therefore building the steps to joint attention. The flapping scarf can become a fun game of ghost (if they like Scooby Doo) or peek a boo. Or gently take their scarf and put it on your head making a silly move or face. When they look up and notice you, say “Your turn!” and give it back. While they may not be reinforced by your excited tone and large smile (yet), keep these facial expressions going!
Partner and Child Play
During play, you want your student/child to include you at some point in the play even if it’s just by looking at you! Use opportunities that are engaging and require steps like making boxed brownies or playing with playdough (or making it)! The book suggests that if after a minute your child has not checked in with you, say, “My turn” and gently take away the toy and put it on your head or do some other silly motion. When the child looks at you, give it back and say, “your turn!” During mealtime prep you can act silly and not take the cap off of the milk and pretend to struggle as you attempt to pour it in the bowl. Be dramatic by saying, “Oh Mrs. Russell is so silly! She forgot to take the cap off!” Now you have grabbed their attention, they’re looking at your facial expression, hearing you laugh, and you can even incorporate in core language such as “help”. You are also showing them the value of a communication partner, that they can seek out others for information and engagement. Once you are getting longer periods of joint attention you can try incorporating play visuals to encourage fun play and attention. Play visuals give choice, control, and shared experiences which help with attachment relationships! It also requires the student/child to reference something for information and can lead to more communication between partners. See the video below!
Don’t give up!
It can be discouraging when our student/child seems to want nothing to do with shared experiences. If we think about it, our behavior is reinforced too during play, ie: if I am crawling around on the floor acting like a pony and my child ignores me, or I do not get the response I am expecting, I might soon stop trying to get him to engage out of exhaustion. When my child finally takes the car down the ramp instead of just spinning the wheels, I’m more likely to feel super excited and happy, therefore being reinforced and more likely to keep trying and repeat the game. Happy Playing!