We are more likely to pay attention to what we like and are interested in. For example, if you like pop music you may remember a song you hear on the radio and can identify the name of the artist. However, if someone changed the station to classical music, you may lose interest as this music is not your preference. You may want to change the station or try to ignore the music.
It is the same for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Children with ASD tend to pay attention to what interests them and are often more interactive when engaged in motivating activities they choose. For example, some children may be interested in watching bubbles pop, opening and closing doors, talking about the Frozen movies or the feeling of bouncing on a fit ball. By taking the time to watch and learn what your child is interested in, you can share the enjoyment of play with your child and develop early communication skills such as shared attention.
Shared attention is the ability to focus on the same thing (e.g. object, person and event) and then look back at one another. This is something children with autism often find tricky. Shared attention is an important skill that supports the development of back and forth communication.
Consider asking yourself the following questions to learn what your child is interested in:
What objects or activities does my child look for?
What objects does my child like to look at, grasp or hold?
What activities does my child come to me for help with or to do?
What daily activities (e.g. bath time, mealtime), social games (e.g. without toys such as songs, tickles) and physical activities (e.g. jumping, bouncing) does my child enjoy?
What makes my child smile?
What calms my child?
Look for clues that your child is interested in something.
Clues could include your child staying engaged for a longer time or talking about something a lot. You may be surprised at the unique interests of your child. Just because your child is interested in something one day, it does not mean they will necessarily be interested in it all the time. For example, lots of us at CliniKids love chocolate and can eat it A LOT, but sometimes we go a little overboard and need a little break. Sometimes we can fall into patterns of being directive or taking charge during play, for example offering a new activity when the child is already interested in something else. However, we know that children learn more easily when we follow their attention and engage in what they are attending to.
SCERTS Communication Stages
The SCERTS communication stages can be a helpful tool to consider your child’s interests. The kinds of activities your child is interested in is often linked to their developmental stage.
Following a Social Partner’s interests (someone who communicates with gestures, behaviour and vocalisations (e.g. noises, sounds)
At this stage, your child may like exploring and playing at a sensory level e.g. water play, musical instruments, chew toys), cause and effect activities (e.g. pop up toys, bubbles, music box) and people games (e.g. singing, tickles, chasey).
Your child may also have their own special interests.
Follow a Language Partner’s interests (someone who communicates with single words, short phrases, symbols, pictures, and signs)
At this stage, your child may like physical activities (e.g. chasey, play equipment, jumping on the trampoline), turn-taking games (e.g. catch, matching games), cooking and art/craft (e.g. drawing, painting).
Your child may have their own special interests.
Following a Conversation Partner’s lead (someone who communicates with more creative phrases and sentences)
At this stage, your child may like and be able to participate in extended play including boardgames (e.g. Connect4, snakes and ladders, memory), sports, cooking, and imaginative play.
Your child may have their own special interests.
Tips for following your child’s lead in play:
Watch your child and observe what your child is interested in. For example, look at what toy they are playing with or what they are doing.
Notice your child’s communication signals. For example, observe your child’s movements, gestures, facial expressions, vocalisations, and mood to help you know what they like and don’t like.
Wait for your child to settle in an activity before joining in. This may involve sitting back and allowing for silent moments.
Position yourself at or below your child’s level. This may involve sitting on the floor and facing each other.
Share your child’s interest by responding to what your child is interested in. You may respond by positioning yourself near your child, playing with similar toys to your child, copying some of their actions, sounds/words and/or commenting on what they are doing.
When we let our child lead, we enter their world and support the development of the foundational skills for language and communication.
Written by CliniKids Speech Pathologists Sally Grauaug and Aria May
Aldred, C., Green, J., Howlin, P., Le Couteur, A. (2018) PACT: Paediatic Autism Communication Therapy. Oxford: Hogrefe House
Prizant, B.M., Wetherby, A.M., Rubin, E., Laurent, A.C., Rydell, P.J. (2015) The SCERTS Model: A Comprehensive Educational Approach for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Volume II: Program Planning and Intervention. Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.
Rogers, S., Dawson, G., & Vismara, L. (2012) An Early Start for Your Child with Autism: Using Everyday Activities to Help Kids Connect, Communicate and Learn. The Guilford Press, New York
Sussman, F., Honeyman, S., Lowry, L., & Drake, L. (2013) More than Words – The Hanen Program for Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Hanen Centre.