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The Importance of Imaginative Pretend Play in Asperger’s and HFA Children

“How important is pretend play for children on the autism spectrum? Do they have the ability to engage in this form of play, or do they lack the necessary imagination skills? What can parents do to help their child if he or she has difficulty interacting with peers in this regard?”

In a nutshell, imaginative pretend play is critical to a child’s development, for example:
  • Thinking Skills— Pretend play provides the youngster with a variety of problems to solve. Whether it's two kids wanting to play the same role or searching for the right material to make a roof for a playhouse, the youngster calls upon important cognitive thinking skills that she will use in every aspect of her life, now and forever.
  • Social and Emotional Skills— When the youngster engages in pretend or dramatic play, she is actively experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life. Through cooperative play, she learns how to share responsibility, take turns, and creatively problem-solve. When the youngster pretends to be different characters, she has the experience of "walking in someone else's shoes," which helps teach the important moral development skill of empathy. It’s normal for kids to see the world from their own egocentric point of view, but through maturation and cooperative play, they will begin to understand the feelings of others. The youngster also builds self-esteem when she discovers she can be anything just by pretending.
  • Language Skills— Have you ever listened-in as your son or daughter engaged in imaginary play with her dolls or peers? You will probably hear some words and phrases you never thought she knew! In fact, parents often hear their own words reflected in the play of their kids. Kids can do a perfect imitation of parents and teachers. Pretend play helps the youngster understand the power of language. Also, by pretend playing with others, she learns that words give her the means to re-enact a story or organize play. This process helps the youngster to make the connection between spoken and written language (a skill that will later help her learn to read).

Unfortunately, the ability to engage in imaginative pretend play does not occur naturally in some children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). For those who do engage in pretend play, it’s usually confined to one or two themes, enacted repeatedly without variation.

These enactments are often quite elaborate, but are pursued over and over again and do not usually involve peers unless they are willing to follow exactly the same pattern. Oftentimes, the themes seen in this pseudo-pretend play continue as preoccupations in adult life and form the main focus of an imaginary world.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Systematic research has increasingly demonstrated a series of clear benefits of kid’s engagement in pretend games from the ages of about 3 through 7:
  • Early imaginative play is associated with increased creative performance later in life.
  • Make-believe games are forerunners of the important capacity for forms of self-regulation (e.g., reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility, and empathy). 
  • Pretend play allows the expression of both positive and negative feelings, and the modulation of affect (i.e., the ability to integrate emotion with cognition).
  • Studies have demonstrated cognitive benefits associated with pretend play (e.g., increases in language usage including subjunctives, future tenses, and adjectives). 
  • Taking on different roles allows kids the unique opportunity to learn social skills (e.g., communication and problem solving).
  • The important concept of “theory of mind” (i.e., an awareness that (a) one’s thoughts may differ from those of other people, and (b) there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable) is closely related to imaginative play. 
  • When kids use toys to introduce possible scenarios or friends, the representation of multiple perspectives occurs naturally.

When young people with Asperger’s and HFA are encouraged to tell their own stories, paint their own pictures, act-out their own feelings, or build their own pretend world, they are better able to hold onto their own hopes and dreams for a bright future. Given the importance of developing an ability to think imaginatively, parents should make a diligent effort to foster this skill.

If your child with Asperger’s or HFA has great difficulty joining-in with peers during pretend play, there are some things you can do to assist in this area. Below are some tips:

1. The prop-box: Consider creating a prop-box or closet filled with objects to spark your child’s fantasy world. A few simple props will spur her on to play imaginatively. For example, a restaurant can be made with a table, some play food, a menu (which your youngster can create), an apron and some play money. You might be the first patron of her new restaurant, asking her what the specials are and how much money different items cost. 

Here are some similar theme ideas:
  • Beauty Shop: Hair rollers, hair dryer, brushes and combs, barrettes and hair clips
  • Hospital: Prescription pad, doctor kit, a blanket and pillow, play food
  • School: Crayons and pencils, desk or table, alphabet, books, a bell
  • Travel/Airplane: Chairs, pillows and blankets, snacks for the plane, suitcases, maps, postcards
  • Zoo: Plastic or stuffed animals, blocks for building cages, zookeeper hat or vest

Here are just a few items to include in the prop-box:
  • Cooking utensils, dishes, plastic food containers, table napkins, silk flowers
  • Fabric pieces, blankets, or old sheets for making costumes or a fort
  • Large plastic crates, cardboard blocks, or a large empty box for creating a "home"
  • Old clothes, shoes, backpacks, hats
  • Old telephones, phone books, magazines
  • Stuffed animals and dolls 
  • Theme-appropriate materials (e.g., postcards, used plane tickets, foreign coins, photos for a pretend vacation trip, etc.)
  • Writing materials for taking phone messages, leaving notes, and making shopping lists
2. Playing along with the child: Parents can join in the pretend play and take on the role their youngster assigns them, following her lead. Parents can help set things up for play too (e.g., give the child old jewelry to play with; let her try on and dress up in your hats, shoes or clothes for fun; make a train with chairs, etc.).

3. Role-playing: Along with your child, engage in a variety role-play activities (e.g., offer to help with the dishes in the play kitchen, be the first in line at the cash register, or act out the part of a customer in a restaurant).

4. Frequent communication: Research has demonstrated that parents who communicate to their kids regularly (e.g., explaining features about nature and social issues, reading or telling stories at bedtime, etc.) seem to be most likely to foster pretend play. Thus, you may want to search for opportunities to teach your child about things related to the weather (e.g., why we have lightning and thunder), have daily “story-telling time” at the dinner table, “reading time” before bed, and so on.

5. Focusing on topics of interest: Kids find the material for their pretend play from books, educational field trips, and everyday life. If your youngster shows interest in a particular topic, encourage her to focus her play around that topic (e.g., a trip to the aquarium might lead her to go on an undersea adventure; reading books about fish, diving or the ocean or watching themed movies will provide more information for her to include in her “script”).

6. Providing time for open-ended play: The most important gift you can give your youngster is the gift of time. Be careful not to involve her in so many activities that there is no time for play. Kids who are not given the time to play often can’t entertain themselves. Creativity and imagination need time to blossom, so be sure to block some time off in your schedule for open-ended play. Provide your youngster with some background information and a few simple props, and give her time to unleash her creativity. Then sit back with a cup of coffee and delight in all that she comes up with.

The creativity and imagination of kids on the autism spectrum can be magical – but they have to be taught! Imagination and pretend play skills do not come naturally to most of these “special needs” children. Since it’s a key to success in nearly everything a child does later in life, creativity is a key component of health and happiness – and a core skill to practice with your son or daughter.

Creativity is not limited to artistic and musical expression—it’s also essential for science, math, and social/emotional intelligence. Creative kids are more flexible and better problem-solvers, which makes them more able to deal with change.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Skills and Deficits Associated with Students on the Spectrum

“I am an elementary school teacher. I have a student diagnosed with high functioning autism this year (5th grade). What are some of the positive attributes associated with this disorder that I can capitalize on? And what are some of the autism-related challenges that I will need to be aware of? Thank you in advance!”

Children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) definitely have certain skills, for example:
  • Many have exceptional musical ability
  • They tend to have excellent rote memories
  • They often become “experts” in one or two subjects (e.g., prehistoric monsters, history of steam trains, geology, genealogy of royalty, characters in a television serial, bus time-tables, astronomy, etc.)
  • They often excel at board games needing a good rote memory (e.g., chess)
  • They usually absorb every available fact concerning their chosen interest and can talk about it at length

HFA children also have a few deficits that teachers will need to consider, for example:
  • Some have specific learning problems (e.g., affecting arithmetical skills, reading or writing)
  • They can become hyper-focused on a particular topic – to the exclusion of all else (it’s this exclusionary component that often causes academic problems)
  • They may talk about their special interests at length, whether or not the listener is interested, but have little grasp of the meaning of the facts they learn
  • Many have difficulty with communication skills, especially as it relates to reading non-verbal cues
  • Most have a significant degree of social skills deficits

This combination of social skills deficits, communication problems, and certain special skills gives an impression of marked eccentricity. These young people may be mercilessly bullied at school, and as a result become anxious and fearful. Those who are more fortunate in the schools they attend may be accepted as “little professors” and respected for their unusual abilities.

Unfortunately, HFA sometimes describes these children as unsatisfactory students, because they follow their own interests regardless of the teacher's instructions and the activities of the rest of the class. However, teachers can capitalize on this trait and use it as a teaching tool (click here for more information).

Many of these students eventually become aware that they are different from their peers, especially as they approach the teenage years. As a result, they may become overly-sensitive to criticism. Also, they often give the impression of fragile vulnerability along with a heart-rending childishness (in other words, their emotional age often does not match their chronological age).

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


Anonymous said... intelligence, ability to grasp linear problems and challenges, ability to notice patterns, negatives, well it depends on the individual, my hfa gets so frustrated that his peers are so 'stupid' and tend to get aggressive, the major challenge for me and his teachers has been to try to teach him patience and from my point of view, trying to teach him to make calculations about how others are feeling, because he doesn't have an intrinsic knowledge of facial and vocal cues

Anonymous said... 5th grade was a tough year for my son. I really appreciate and admire your willingness to embrace him as a student. My son had a problem with the increased social dynamics and he does not do well in groups. Same things as Ruby Slippers. I think working with his parents if possible to recognize your student's triggers and individual strengths would help.

Anonymous said... I wish more teacher were just like this woman. My son wasnt diagnosed until 5th grade and sometimes i feel like a broken record talking to all of his teachers every year since. Sometimes i feel like I'm their only source of info on the topic. Surely they can take a moment to educate themselves a little too! Lol

danalynn said...I definitely see my 5th grade HFA son in these descriptions. Normally compliant, he outright refuses to do group work at school because he either gets super frustrated with how "slow" he others are, or super frustrated because he cannot keep up. He definitely needs specific instruction at times to understand others. One of the most frequent points is when he sees peers breaking the rules, he very much feels obliged to tell an adult, even for minor points that aren't doing any harm. He recently got in trouble when he "cheated" on a math assignment: he asked another child for help and that student handed over his paper and said, "Here, just copy mine." My kiddo was so stunned and bewildered that he obliged, but kind of knew it wasn't right and simply could not process it all in his head and respond in another way. Taking time to debrief events like this at home is key. At this age, the quirkiness from his sensory processing challenges are standing out more and he is wanting to give more attention to doing OT to see if improvements can be made. We will be working with the school to create a multi-step transition plan for middle school, complete with multiple observations/shadowing, helping him build a connection with an "anchor" adult in that building, practice with changing classes, etc.

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Communication Difficulties in Children with Asperger's and HFA

“What are some of the common communication difficulties that children on the high functioning end of autism have?”

The youngster with Asperger’s or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) usually begins to speak at the age expected in “typical” kids (however, walking may be delayed). A full command of grammar is sooner or later acquired, but there may be difficulty in using pronouns correctly (with the substitution of the second or third for the first person forms).

The content of speech is often abnormal (tending to be pedantic and often consisting of lengthy discussions on favorite subjects). Sometimes a word or phrase is repeated over and over again in a stereotyped fashion. The youngster may invent some words. Also, subtle verbal jokes are not understood, though simple verbal humor may be appreciated.

Non-verbal aspects of communication are also affected. There may be little facial expression except with strong emotions (e.g., anger, irritation). Vocal intonation tends to be monotonous and droning, or exaggerated. Gestures are limited, or else large and clumsy and inappropriate for the accompanying speech.

Comprehension of other people's expressions and gestures is poor, and the youngster may misinterpret or ignore such non-verbal signs. At times he or she may earnestly gaze into another person's face, searching for the meaning that eludes him or her.

The most obvious trait in children with Asperger’s and HFA is impairment of two-way social communication. This is NOT due to a desire to withdraw from social contact, rather the problem arises from a lack of ability to understand and use the rules governing social behavior.

These rules are unwritten and unstated, complex, and constantly changing. These hidden rules affect speech, movement, eye contact, choice of clothing, gesture, posture, proximity to others, and many other aspects of behavior.

The degree of skill in the area of communication varies among “typical” children, but those with Asperger’s and HFA are outside the normal range. For example:
  • A small minority have a history of rather bizarre antisocial acts, possibly due to their lack of empathy
  • Some are overly-sensitive to criticism and suspicious of others
  • Their social behavior is often naive and peculiar
  • They do not have the intuitive knowledge of how to adapt their approaches and responses to fit-in with the needs and personalities of peers
  • They may be aware of their difficulties and even strive to overcome them, but in inappropriate ways

Relations with the opposite sex provide a good example of the more general social ineptitude. One of my Asperger’s clients (male, age 25) observed that many of his peers had girlfriends – and some eventually married and had kids. He wanted to be “normal” in this respect, but had no idea how to indicate his interest and attract a female in a socially acceptable way.

He often asked others for a “list of rules for talking to girls,” or tried to find “the secret” in books. If he had a strong sex drive, he would approach and touch or kiss a stranger, or someone much older or younger than himself. As a consequence, he found himself in trouble with the police on a few occasions, or he tried to solve the problem by becoming solitary and withdrawn.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...

Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

Click here to read the full article…

Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

Click here to read the full article…

Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

Click here
to read the full article...

Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and HFA

Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

Click here for the full article...

My Aspergers Child - Syndicated Content