Keeping children with Autism Spectrum Disorder occupied in meaningful and productive ways on weekends is not always easy. The ‘automatic babysitters’ (iPADs, Nintendo DS, XBOX, tablets, iPHONE, etc.) become highly over-used and can contribute to missed opportunities for face-to-face interaction and communication. A common question I hear from parents is: “how do I keep my child busy when I have so many errands to run and tasks to complete before Monday rolls around?” The unstructured ‘down’ time is the hardest time for our children because they require structure, prompting and coaching to participate in many non-technological activities. So what’s the solution?
Firstly, developing a VISUAL routine for the weekend makes the hours predictable and less anxiety-provoking. A child with ASD will benefit from knowing what is expected for the duration of the weekend. Now that’s not to say that the weekend must be so rigidly structured that there isn’t a minute of ‘free-time’ but carving out some form of routine with clearly defined blocks of ‘free-time’ will promote organization in your child’s brain. Our children struggle with thinking into the future. Executive functioning is our brain’s ability to coordinate a mass of cognitive functions (planning, sequencing, organizing, predicting what tools are necessary for a given job, anticipating problems that may arise in a given task or situation, thinking ahead) and individuals with ASD have difficulty with this skill. The inability to plan for oneself can lead to immediate boredom, anxiety, random impulsive acts which can get a child into ‘trouble’, increased self-stimulatory behavior to fill the time and possibly an increase in attention-seeking behaviors. Creating a visual routine using what the child best understands (photographs, symbols or words) will provide a sense of ‘relief’ to the child who struggles to create their own agenda. It also helps the child to prepare for the sensory bombardment that may occur during specific activities (vacuuming, family gatherings, outings to the store etc.). Some families report that the more information they provide in advance CREATES anxiety in their child. In this case, I would encourage the family to become detectives in determining why the activity is so overwhelming for the child (is it the noise, lighting, temperature, presence of a feared object, previous negative responses to a similar situation) or is it related to cognitive rigidity and the child’s natural disposition to dislike change or transitions?
Secondly, create a few bins of activities using plastic totes (being mindful of your child’s age and stage of development for safety reasons). Fill and label each tote with 2 different activities that may spark your child’s interest. On the visual schedule you can incorporate “Mystery Box Time” and have your child pull a number out of a hat which corresponds to the Tote the child gets access to for a specified period of time.
TOTE #1: Drawing, Word-finding, Coloring Box – filled with markers, pencil crayons, your child’s favorite pen, paper, dollar-store coloring books or crossword puzzles, word-finding booklets, sudoku puzzles, blank paper, colored paper, coiled booklets with lined paper, a book on how to draw, etc.
TOTE #2: Building Box – filled with individually packaged Ziplock bags of lego, containers of plastercine or playdoh, sample pictures of items that can be built with these supplies, construction paper, glue, kid-friendly scissors (if appropriate), Oregami supplies, wooden popsicle sticks, a deck of cards to build a card house, a box of Dominoes to create a path of Dominoes to tip over etc. Providing instructions for each item will help the child understand how to use the supplies.
TOTE #3: Bubble Box – filled with bubbles, bubble wands, empty containers and a small container of dishsoap with instructions on how to make homemade bubbles, a few sticks of chewing gum, a towel, a washcloth, a laminated drawing of a talking bubble that can be written on with dry-erase marker, a dry-erase marker or water-based washable marker.
TOTE #5 – Fun Facts & Laugh Box – filled with various children’s encyclopedias of various topics (architecture, dinosaurs, insects, birds, animals, history, geography, weird and funny facts). This can also be a place to put “knock-knock” jokes, kid-friendly jokes booklets, social stories or books that explain topics of interest to your child.
TOTE #6 – Sensory Toolbox – filled with fidget tools (a paper clip, Mack-Tack, pen lid, dice, small square swatches of various fabrics, a spring from a pen, short piece of string, a short piece of ribbon, a felt pipe-cleaner, a cotton ball, a gel-filled ball, squishy stress balls), noiseless whistles, scented lip balm, chewing gum, a relaxation CD or soothing music downloaded on to an MP3 player or ipod, eye mask, scented bean bags, a Slinky, ear plugs, noise-reduction headphones, a lava lamp, glow-in-the-dark bracelets or sticks, bubbles, a massage roller, a foot pumice stone etc. There are many things that can be used in a sensory toolbox.
TOTE #7 – Photograpy Box – filled with pictures or photo albums of your child’s infancy and time throughout the years, photographs of family members over time, a sorting system to categorize the pictures such as “ME” vs. “Me and my parents” etc., a camera (if your child is able to use one safely), a list of items to find around the house to take pictures (a scavenger hunt for picture-taking).
Lastly, in addition to creating Mystery Boxes, it will be beneficial to block a certain amount of time in the visual routine where the individual can participate in some physical activity (for sensory regulation) with either the parents or a trusted adult (treadmill, walking outdoors, dancing to music, jumping on a mini-trampoline, stationary bike, lifting weights, raking leaves, shovelling snow, building a snowman, vacuuming, sweeping, Wii Just Dance, bowling, swimming, washing the windows outside). Whatever you can motivate your child to join you in ! Remember to use a “First… Then…” approach to introducing the schedule of activities with the ‘Then’ activity being the reward.
If your child is developmentally not ready to tackle any amount of unsupervised time, seek further occupational therapy assessment in determining how to best promote your child’s participation and ongoing learning. Advocate for respite through various organizations (Children’s disABILITY Services, Family Dynamics, CFS etc.). Being realistic about what goals you can achieve during a weekend while tending to the needs of your child. Sometimes we place very lofty expectations on ourselves and this can increase our stress levels and feelings of inadequacy. Be kind to yourself. It takes a village to raise a child.
If you have any further questions about supporting your child with ASD through the weekend, please feel free to call (204) 415-7656. I would be happy to assist you in determining your child’s needs.