Babysitting can be challenging, whether or not you’re babysitting children with autism. It’s hard to keep kids’ attention these days, but that’s one of the fun parts of why you got into this profession in the first place, right? Depending on where a child falls on the autism spectrum, they’ll have different communication levels and abilities. So when you’re getting ready to go and babysit, you’ll want to plan activities and pack accordingly with things to keep an autistic child entertained.
Physical Activities for Autistic Children
When babysitting an autistic child or autistic children, you’ll want to do things that engage the child in the community or their surroundings.
With Lots of Space
Studies have found that one of the things autistic children suffer from the most is a lack of physical activity. Some new research shows running to be extremely beneficial to children with autism in helping improve their focus, behavior, and health.
Activities that are designed to help children develop their motor skills by learning to work with directions and instructions are great, too. This could include playing tag, follow the leader, Simon says, or freeze dance. Get creative!
Without Much Space
In case you don’t have the luxury of a lot of backyard space to work with, we’ve got some activities you can try out the next time you’re babysitting an autistic child. One way you can get around limited space is with a balance board or portable trampoline. A great children’s’ trampoline, especially for kids with autism, is the Fold & Go by the Original Toy Company. It’s compact, foldable design makes it portable and it has a handle and spring-free design for enhanced safety.
Chances are, the child’s parents will have a selection of toys, games, and activities that you can choose from. Just ask them which ones are the favorites to get an idea of what activities to try first. But as the Scouts say, it’s always best to be prepared.
Toys and Games You Can Throw In Your Bag
Children with autism like toys like every other child does, but certain toys are more helpful in enhancing certain developmental skills and behaviors. Stimulus reward toys and switch activated toys are made for these exact reasons. Those types of toys come to life or play music with the flip of a button.
When thinking of toys that you can play with when babysitting an autistic kid, think multi-sensory and sensory-rich. Old-school Lite Brite, anyone? If all else fails, give your iPhone or Android a spin; there are plenty of apps and games designed to enrich the senses that you can try.
Activity games that can be played with another child or alone are great to have on hand. They help with socialization, memory, and other essential skills. Check out the book-sized Sandwich Stacking Game by Melissa & Doug to work on improving memory and matching skills by having the child build a sandwich piece by piece. For autistic children who struggle with the sense of touch, GuideCraft’s 3D Feel & Find game is a great activity too.
Babysitting Autistic Children: From the Parent’s Perspective
Just like every babysitting job offers a different set of challenges, every parent has a different set of worries. The difference is, parents of autistic children have slightly different and/or more severe ones. Between the worries that every child’s parent has over future and other ASD-related complexities that are layered on, it can be hard for parents with autistic children to truly relax.
As a babysitter, there are a few things you can do to help put the parents’ minds at ease while watching their autistic kids. Here are some tips for babysitting autistic kids that were suggested by parents who know:
Ask for Details
If this is your first time babysitting a child with autism, ask the parent what the child’s routines and rules are. Routines are especially important for children with autism, if they’re changed the child may get upset. That being said, always stick to the schedule—whether it’s doing one task at a time or putting them down for a nap by noon.
Know What They Eat
Don’t forget about the child’s diet! Many children with autism have special diets or simply won’t eat certain foods. Ask the parents what the child doesn’t eat and take note.
People and Places Can Get Overwhelming
Sensory needs with children who have autism are different, too. Ask the parents if there are any special exercises, games, or activities they usually engage in to help the child stay calm and balanced.
When babysitting a child with autism, don’t bring your friends or family around. If you go out to a park or on a walk, stick to places the child already knows. The last thing you want to do is cause the child anxiety.
Speaking Can Be a Challenge
Sometimes, children with autism are unable to speak. Autism affects people in many different ways. Ask the parents what the best way to communicate with their child is or if there are any special ways of communicating (like sign language, pictures, or painting).
When the parents get home they’ll have doubtlessly been thinking about their child. Give them a rundown of how your time together went. What games did you play? How was the child’s energy/mood level? What did you two eat? Is there anything else they should be aware of?
More Background on Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
What are Autism Spectrum Disorders?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a disorder that is characterized in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. ASD is the umbrella term used to cover all types and subtypes of autism disorders as of May of 2013 with the publication of the DSM-5 diagnostic manual. ASD affects the way children and adults feel and think, as well as their ability to process their surroundings and feelings, but in a unique way.
There are many misconceptions about ASD, some of the most common being that people who are on the spectrum all have a “special gift” like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Another common misconception about people with autism is that kids with autism are antisocial or don’t want friends. Just because a child is on the spectrum doesn’t mean they’re socially disconnected. They could just be lacking the right social tools or motivation, or respond awkwardly when something new throws them off.
Many with autism take pride in the atypical ways they view the world and about 40 percent of those with the disorder can average to above-average intellectual ability. While the exact causes of autism haven’t been pinpointed yet, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified around 1 in 68 American children as being on the autism spectrum—a number that continues to increase.