If you are a parent of a child with special needs, you’ve had to balance many new challenges along with those you already face on a daily basis. Lately, you may be spending more time than ever with your child, but more time doesn’t mean you’re getting more quality time. While it may not be feasible at all on some days, even brief periods of uninterrupted, unpressured time for the two of you or your whole family may yield tremendous benefits.
The Importance of Connection
Parent-child engagement is a time to see, feel, and experience something together. Your child may have difficulty expressing their emotions, but all children have feelings, points of view, and a need for connection. According to Edwards, Sheridan, & Knoche (2008), parent engagement offers warmth and sensitivity, and supports a child’s social-emotional, cognitive, and communicative competence. Ample evidence supports that quality parent engagement also is linked to promoting a child’s autonomy and adaptive skills (Edwards et al., 2008).
Engagement is sharing positive affect through eye contact (looking at you, referencing you), joint attention (shifting their attention between you and the activity), social smiles, imitation, and has notably sustained attention. According to Lindeman, McDonald, Lee, Gehshan, and Hoch (2017), a cooperative activity provides the context to facilitate these social skills. During time together, provide your child with visual or verbal cues to help them socially respond (Lindeman et al., 2017). Use motivating items and bring them to your face so they look at you more often and/or need to ask you for what they want or need (MacDonald et al., 2006). Use words and gestures that are predictable, repetitive, and functional to facilitate understanding. Follow their eyes to see what they are looking at and label those things to expand on their vocabulary (Edwards et al., 2008).
Variations in Autism
According to the American Psychiatric Association (2013), children with autism have persistent deficits and significant variations in communication and social skills, and restrictive, repetitive behaviors. The symptoms of autism manifest differently for each person. Your child may have communication deficits, may not follow directions, have difficulty sitting, attending to you, participating, or exhibit disruptive behaviors. These impairments may affect engagement and result in increased difficulty.
Strategies to Help
Applying ABA principles at home including motivation and proactive strategies may help facilitate interactions and maintain your child’s cooperation. Consider your child’s age, developmental level, preferences, strengths, and needs when thinking of what you want to do together. Schedule your special time when your child appears to be calm and environmentally aware (recently ate, rested, no recent tears or tantrums, normal breathing rate, responding to you). Prepare the environment ahead of time (arrange materials, limit distractions, have motivating items ready and visible, set behavioral parameters). Use prompting such as visual supports such as words, pictures, or schedule to help your child understand the sequence of tasks and clarify the expectations.
Selecting an Activity
Your child may have a restricted range of interests. Try to offer choices (using words or pictures) or build off of what they like. For example, if your child likes cars, use cars in a math game. If they enjoy talking baseball stats, look at baseball cards together and talk about them. If they love music, turn their favorite song on while you play. Read a book or social story involving their favorite character and pause to talk about it together. You can even engage during naturally occurring routines like mealtime, bath time, or getting dressed. Feel free to substitute materials or components of the activity to meet their age and developmental level.
You may want to use engagement time to target skills that occur during play, natural routines, or contrived (“set up”) opportunities. While you may be tempted to teach your child new skills during this time, it is probably best, at least initially, to focus on having fun and being engaged. If and when your child is ready to focus on skill development during this time, you could incorporate some “maintenance” skills or skills learned in other settings or with other people. You could consider maintenance of socially significant skills that can be used every day such as contact and joint attention (sharing an experience through eye gaze shifts), requesting preferred items (favorite toy, item, activity), functional communication of needs and wants (through words, vocalization, gestures, pointing, communicative eye gaze, etc.), and following basic directions. You can even be goal-oriented with engagement time (e.g., play for 15 minutes, finishing the craft, following your play theme, imitating you.) If you child appears to be demonstrating regression with previously mastered social, language, and behavior skills, they may need to be re-addressed with a more structured approach.
If your child shows signs of disinterest and agitation during activities, breaks, a change in activity, and/or calming techniques may be needed. Try to end the activity on a positive note and try again later. Use what worked well and learn from what was challenging for you and your child as a guide for next time (e.g., do you need to set new limits on behaviors, would visual supports help next time, was anything discomforting to your child, what was most motivating).
Remember, all children respond well to consistency – so keep trying and be proud of the parenting you are doing every day.
Stephanie Flamini has been in the autism field for 14 years, working with individuals on the autism spectrum in school and home settings. She has extensive experience in the early intervention age group and is Chair of the NJABA Early Intervention Workgroup. As Education & Training Coordinator at Autism New Jersey, Stephanie delivers trainings on evidence-based practices for parents and professionals. Stephanie recently earned her Master of Science Degree from Purdue Global University with a concentration in Applied Behavior Analysis and is a Board-Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst.
Bondy, A., & Weiss, M. J. (2013). Teaching social skills to people with autism. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.
Cohen, M. J., & Gerhardt, P. F. (2014). Visual supports for people with autism: A guide for parents and professionals (2nd ed.). Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.
Delmolino, L., & Harris, S.L. (2004). Incentives for change: motivating people with autism spectrum disorders to learn and gain independence. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.) Arlington, VA: Author.
Edwards, C., Sheridan, S., & Knoche, L. (2008). Parent engagement and school readiness: Parent-child relationships in early earning. Faculty Publications, Department of Child, Youth, and Family Studies, 60.
Lindeman, K., McDonald, M. E., Lee, R., Gehshan, S., & Hoch, H. (2017). The effects of visual cues, prompting, and feedback within activity schedules on increasing cooperation between pairs of children with autism spectrum disorder. Special Education Research, Policy & Practice, 1 (1), 5-27.
MacDonald, R., Anderson, J., Dube, W., Geckeler, A., Green, G., Holcomb, W., Mansfield, R., & Sanchez, J. (2006). Behavioral assessment of joint attention: A methodological report. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 27, 138-150.