Credit for these ideas goes to Marlaine Willborn, a speech therapist in Winnipeg. This post is based on ideas she had compiled and shared with me when I was trying to get better at engaging my children in play. Her resource came primarily from ‘Giggle Time: Establishing a social connection’ by Susan Aud Somers.
One of the most daunting parts of developmental autism therapy for parents is the prospect of playing with our children for large portions of the day. Most parents play with their children to some degree, but sometimes we can feel that our children don’t really want to play with us. Many of us adults, particularly introverts, also feel like we lost the play skills that were once so natural, and need to “relearn” how to do it.
With the aim of helping out all of us fearful adults, we present “Giggle Games” – one way to help make interactions with your child a part of your day. A “Giggle Game” is simply an activity you can do with your child with two key traits:
- your child enjoys it
- it has a predictable and flexible structure.
This will, of course, be different for every child. What are your kid’s current interests? Maybe it’s trains, certain foods, a certain set of toys, or a certain TV show. What sort of sensory experiences does your child seem to enjoy? Maybe it’s silly noises, fast motions, being squeezed, or jumping? Often you’ll find that if you spend some time thinking about it, you are already well aware of what your child likes. Other times it can feel more difficult to identify these things. That’s okay – it simply means you’ll be starting with a little bit more trial and error.
As noted before, the structure of a Giggle Game needs to be both predictable and flexible. Predictability lets your child build a sense of anticipation and know the role they can play. Flexibility lets you build in elements of surprise and challenge to develop your child’s thinking skill, as well as giving you a way to keep the game going a bit longer without boredom setting in.
Each Giggle Game has:
- a beginning (or invitation),
- a middle (with the possibility of repetition and variation) and
- an end (providing a sense of closure).
It sounds simple, and it is. Here’s one example of those stages fleshed out more fully:
This example, of course, is only one out of many that you can try. Some others that we’ve seen work include chase games, blowing bubbles, hopscotch, catch, hiding objects, throwing rocks into puddles, water balloons, or paints. The important thing when coming up with ideas is, once again to think about things you know your child enjoys and how you can use them to create a shared game.
A Few Guiding Principles
Non-verbal cues: Especially in the early developmental stages, nonverbal cues are important for both you and your child to communicate what you are doing and to invite responses. The beginning is important – it provides a way for your child to invite you to play the game! So especially if your child is primarily nonverbal, you want a nonverbal invitation. Also, it’s very important to WAIT for your child to respond to each invitation or “turn” that you take. This is about your child learning to be a communicator!
Persistence: Don’t give up too quickly! It may take a few invitations, or even a full loop through the stages before your child is ready to join. And while you don’t want to get stuck on the same idea forever, what your child is not in the mood for one day may not necessarily speak to their lack of interest in the activity forever.
Frequency: How often should you try this? Because Giggle Games are simple in nature, parents can give them a chance at various times throughout the day. If you get the reaction you’re hoping for, wonderful! If not, you know that there will be another chance soon enough. Just be ready when you start a game to stay in the moment with your child if they do become engaged! You might even find that they stay interested longer than you do. If so, great! Hang in there and let it play out!
Variations: How quickly? How many? How soon? Because every kid is different, there is no hard and fast rule for that. In general, try not to introduce more than one at a time. Focus on the cues that your child is giving you. It’s good to introduce a variation when they’re still engaged in the game, but it’s also good to respect their feedback about the variation. If blowing the balloon’s air onto their face is too much, for example, go back to the activity they enjoyed, and introduce a different variation a little bit later.
The play routine needs to be ‘same but a little different’ so your child can still anticipate what is coming and connect it with the game you child is familiar with and enjoys. If the variation is too much it might be confusing or your child might lose interest.
Props: Especially early on, the fewer props, the better. Remember, the focus is not on the game or toys themselves, but on you and your child having an enjoyable shared experience.
So with all that information in mind, how do you start? Simply by starting! Pick an activity and try it with your child. Whether your first try is a success or not, you will have begun the process of connecting with your child through the sometimes daunting, but also very rewarding avenue of play.
For further reading:
Susan Aud Saunders. Giggle Time – Establishing the Social Connection: A Program to Develop the Communication Skills of Children with Autism.
Fern Sussman. More Than Words: A Parents’ Guide to Building Interaction and Language Skills for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Social Communication Difficulties.