Could I have prevented autism in my son at an early age? Probably not. Could I have boosted his development positively through purposeful play? Absolutely!
An easy baby. A VERY easy baby, you might say. He slept predictably, kept a very rigid schedule, and didn’t really seem to need a lot of interaction. In fact, he would cry to be put down and would be content to be left alone for long periods of time. When he played, he would entertain himself with extreme focus. What I thought was an easy baby was actually the very early signs of autism.
It seemed like a dream. As a new parent I was pinching myself. What I should have been doing was researching autism. I didn’t know that then and I don’t feel guilt about it now. I didn’t have the tools then that I have now, but when you know better, you do better.
Quick and dirty guide to the brain and autism:
We still don’t know what causes autism, but we know that there is a range of things: some are neurobiological, some are environmental, and some are genetic. As technology advances, we are learning how the brain with autism behaves. We know that infants and children do all of their learning by observing and imitating. We also know that the brain with autism is over-connected in some areas and under-connected in other areas. The areas that are over-connected seem to function like a traffic jam for neural activity, which decreases the functionality of the brain overall. The areas that are under-connected are missing pathways that promote social engagement, which, again interferes with the kind of interaction that promotes learning and language.
The great news is that the brain is so elastic that purposeful play can teach the brain to build the missing pathways that promote social engagement and imitation, while also underutilizing the areas that are over-connected such that the brain gets rid of the pathways that are not being used and can work more efficiently.
Purposeful play to boost social brain connectivity: Seven play-based activities that reduce autism:
- Encourage Eye Contact: First and foremost, feed your teeny tiny babies while making eye contact. We are talking aggressive eye contact here. Insist on eye contact when feeding. My son was most comfortable being fed sitting straight up, which did not promote eye contact. Pairing eye contact with eating is an important part of learning to be social and enjoy interacting socially. Eye contact encouragement should continue throughout infancy. Show your infant a shiny toy and then bring the toy up to eye level so they are making eye contact with you and the toy. When you have their eye contact, smile and coo and giggle and squeal. Eye contact is the gatekeeper to good social learning.
- Imitation play: Imitation is the earliest learning skill. It is how we learn. Nothing is more important than imitation. You should be imitating like crazy. If your baby shakes their head, you do it too. If they make silly noises, join them. Show them the connection between what they do and what you do. Then, reverse it. Grab a toy in your hand and put a toy in their hand and help them imitate your movement.
- Follow the leader: Who should be the leader in play and interaction? Let’s take turns! Follow your baby’s lead by engage in what they are doing. Join them in the toys that they are playing with and play in the way that they show you. If your baby pulls away from play when you join them, this could be an early (and often missed) sign of autism. This is the reason why you should also take the lead and encourage interaction and play, especially for infants that are content to play alone, like my son. Be an active participant in playing purposefully!
- Overuse language: Really, you can’t talk too much to an infant, especially an infant that could have a language delay. Label everything you are doing. Sing songs constantly. Music is a huge gateway to learning language for individuals who are predisposed to autism. Show that language has meaning by labeling a food and then giving the food to your baby. Just keep talking.
- Joint attention play: Joint attention is the ability to pay attention to the same thing at the same time and tends to be a strong skill in very social babies. Promote joint attention by practicing pointing games. Pointing is a huge joint attention skill. Any activity that promotes turn-taking, like rolling a ball or a car, will promote joint attention.
- Cause and effect: Peekaboo, Pop Goes the Weasel, pull toys, ball toys, and pretty much every infant toy is popular because it teaches cause and effect. If you do this, then that happens. Cause and effect play increases attention, curiosity, and purposeful play. It’s also a skill that can be hard to gain for individuals with autism—and it makes later learning harder. Promote opportunities to explore cause and effect games and toys.
- Be the coolest ever: Young children with autism begin to show more interest in items than in people. People just aren’t their jam, which would be fine except people is where they are going to learn. People have to be important! To compete with the other things in their environment, you have to be the super fun, cartoon version of yourself. When you enter the room, be animated and excited. Use a flashlight and shine it on you so you are the most interesting thing around. Dance and be silly. Have huge, fun reactions. Use these opportunities to connect with your child and boost their brains.