Playing with Children on the Spectrum: Developing Faculties and Playtime

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. This month we’ll be looking at what parents and specialists have to say on raising children on the autism spectrum. Previously we wrote about the diagnosis stage here and helping parents here.

All parents know that play is fundamental in a child’s development, be they neuro-typical or facing specific challenges. But playtime is also a unique moment to interact with your child and create bonds. We spoke to Delia Yeo, a speech and language therapist, and Ladislas de Toldi, co-founder of Leka, to know more about how play can help children on the autism spectrum develop skills and bond.

Playing and Engaging with People

Games stimulate and motivate children, through fun and the desire to win. Yet both experts stress that children on the spectrum often have difficulty engaging with playmates, remembering  rules or using all the concepts necessary to win.

Therapists like Delia “look at several aspects of how the child plays to understand how he or she understands the world”. Like an alternative mapping, Delia is able to identify what types of play are easy, which ones are hard. She chooses specific types of games accordingly centred on internal feelings, external sensations, sitting, physical activity, etc.

In some cases, Delia has to teach a child to play before she can teach them skills through play. She starts with simpler games, ensuring she can interact and engage, before moving on to complex games. Most importantly, she has to look for what the child enjoys. “I choose the game depending on the child’s interest, [so] they [will] have a gleam in their eye and connect”.

Games and Technology

Traditional games like hide and seek, puzzles, swings or anything another child might play are used to help autistic children learn skills. Nowadays, thanks to technology, new games have emerged, some of which are more high-tech than anything a neuro-typical child will use.

Take Leka, for example, a small, round, ball shaped robot developed by a French start-up with specialists in several countries. The robot uses artificial intelligence and is designed to help children progress on their cognitive, motor, social and communications skills. Less intimidating than a human, the robot interacts directly with children, setting the rules and congratulating them when they succeed. They get a real sense of accomplishment when they are able to crack the game. Amongst other games, Leka plays hide and seek and Simon Says, and new games are added every week.

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Leka, the robot, happy face

“The most important thing”, says Ladislas “is figuring out what each child enjoys. It’s the only way to open the door. And if they only like Dreamworks animated movies, then so be it.” In fact, Leka are very humble in their approach. They advise parents and organisations consider all their options before investing in Leka, because at the end of the day, their objective is to make sure the robot is bringing out the best in children.

“There are so many incredible new ways of interacting with children on the spectrum now. I’m impressed by some apps on the iPad, that have non verbal children interacting with the world, and I’m stunned by how apps like Sidekicks are helping people with autism communicate with their families.” Children on the spectrum can greatly benefit from technological playthings, which unlock new opportunities to learn and communicate.

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A child plays with Leka the robot

Is All Play Work Disguised as Fun?

Delia recommends that “parents should always play without a teaching goal in mind”. The tendency to test their child might take all the fun out of playing. Just the act of spending quality time together and fostering engagement is valuable. As they play together, the child will learn some things naturally from them, in a softer, less goal oriented way.

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Family play time, in this case with Leka the robot

“My advice is to simply follow your child’s lead. Join and imitate her at first, and as your play grows, her ideas will grow too. You’ll be “teaching” by supporting her experience in play”. As you do so, Delia suggests introducing your ideas and small challenges into games. They will encourage your child to problem solve around them, or create unity in a scattered game.

Delia recalls an autistic teen who was brought up with very little play. “He was very compliant and would carry out tasks, but seemed robotic and detached.” Recently, as she has worked around discovering what he likes and doesn’t like, and developing his ideas through play, she has seen the teen grow in confidence and become a real playmate. “He used to interact because he was supposed to, not because he wanted to. Now he’s pulling his weight in our interaction!”

Happy playtime!

Additional Links

Some additional links for parents looking for more information. Please also suggest more to us, which we can add to the list.

  • For more about Leka you can also visit here. Leka is currently looking for financial partners. Contact Ladislas at ladislas@leka.io for any inquiries,
  • An example of a sidekick app,
  • A review of Ron Suskind’s book on using Disney sidekicks at home to communicate with their son Owen,
  • Link to the film about using Disney sidekicks. 
  • Autism Speaks has a very long list of apps here

Note: all photos in this article are curtesy of Leka

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Diagnosing Hearing Loss in Children

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. This month we’ll be looking at what parents and specialists have to say on raising children who are deaf or are hard-of-hearing. The following article on hearing loss and sports can be found here.

Studies show that over nine out of ten deaf and hard of hearing children are born to hearing parents. This makes identifying hearing loss and adapting very difficult for families. We spoke to two mothers of deaf children who are happy to share some advice.

The Silent Handicap

Hearing loss is invisible. Many children can go years without ever being diagnosed. Bianca Birdsey, medical doctor and mother to deaf twins, recalls being politely hushed when she expressed her concerns. When she noticed oddities in her children, “people would say “it’s their normal!“”  she recalls. “They would think I was paranoid because I worked in paediatrics.” Bianca even asked a day care teacher if they noticed anything unusual about the twins, “and at the end of the day, she said “there’s nothing wrong with them”!

It took a dramatic scene in a public setting, with one twin crying for her mother, who was standing a few feet behind her, for Bianca and her husband to confirm their intuition: the girls just couldn’t hear. Stories like these are apparently quite frequent in South Africa. Bianca says many children there aren’t diagnosed until as late as five or even later.

Of course, diagnosis can differ greatly from one country to another. Tara Teo, founder of Irisada, gave birth to her daughter in Norway, where children are automatically screened. However, after the first check the nurses told them to come back two weeks later, as there might simply be “water in the ears.” The next test was also inconclusive, mainly because her daughter was too agitated to get good readings. It took an additional two months to finally get consistent readings of one ear and discover Heidi was profoundly deaf.

The Language Barrier

Why is an early diagnosis so important? The first two reasons are linked to how the human brain develops at that early age. Firstly, the early months and years of a child’s life are those where the brain learns how to structure language.  If they are diagnosed too late, they may have missed this critical phase and be left with learning difficulties.

Why? Because deaf children can only access language via visual aides until they are taught sign language or have hearing devices (if their family chooses to). Most families don’t sign at home unless there is already a deaf family member. This means that until a child is diagnosed, they often have absolutely no means of communicating and structuring thought with others.

The second very important factor, is that a child’s brains learns early on how to differentiate frequencies, especially to pick out human voices from other sounds. Tara’s daughter was given hearing aids and cochlear implants at a young age, but she needed lots of additional speech therapy to learn what to listen to in a sound. She’s also working hard to reproduce speech sounds, as she wasn’t exposed to them as early on in the belly as other babies.

Follow Your Child’s Lead

Both parents stress the amount of pressure they were under. “You’re making all these decisions for them” says Bianca, and some people have very set opinions on what is best for deaf children. Some of these decisions can be expensive in many countries, which can make it even harder. There can also be an impression that once your child has aids or implants, things will just miraculously get easier. In fact, the operation or “switch-on” is often just the beginning.

The mothers both laughed when they recalled their children’s reactions as the implants were turned on: pure horror! Bianca even jokes that there’s no point spending hours thinking up the first sentence you’ll speak to your child, as they won’t have a clue what the sounds mean! Imagine coming from a world of silence into a world of continuous noise. A great deal of energy goes into adapting to hearing.

Mothers with a Mission

Bianca’s advice is to “trust yourself”. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the politics around deafness, just follow your child’s lead. “There’s no right or wrong choice”, she says “as long as your child is progressing”. In Bianca’s case, meeting and socialising with deaf adults broke the spiral of grief. In part because she came to terms with a realigned vision for her twins’ future, and also because she was able to master sign language faster. Learning to sign, as a family, allowed them to bond like they never had before.

Tara, meanwhile, was frustrated with how difficult it was to get adapted headbands for her daughter as Heidi’s ears were simply too small to keep the devices in place. She spent hours online, searching for something that would keep the implants in place. She realised there was a gap in the market, and how useful it would be to be able to provide a small solution that could have a potentially huge impact. She felt how wonderful it would be if parents free up time they were spending sussing out where to find special products, to spend with their children instead. With this conviction and simple goal in mind, she founded Irisada, the very platform you’re reading on now.

Additional Links

Some additional links for parents looking for more information. Please also suggest more to us, which we can add to the list.

  • Facts about hearing loss
  • Bianca’s blog, on her experience of bringing up three kids with hearing loss
  • A preliminary list of famous deaf people, to get you started with imagining your child’s future
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A Child I know is on the Spectrum: What Do I Say and Do?

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. This month we’ll be looking at what parents and specialists have to say on raising children on the autism spectrum. Previously we wrote about the diagnosis stage here.

When parents find out their child is on the autism spectrum, it can be difficult to explain to their friends and extended family what this entails. Similarly, often people are unsure how can they can show their support and create bonds with the child.

The First Key Reactions

One of the key messages for friends and family is that each child will be unique. We asked  Lisa, who writes the Quirks and Chaos blog to give us some insight on what a family with an autistic child might need. Her view is that parents are also very different. In her case, hearing the word autism was “devastating” in the beginning. She needed people to listen and sympathise, without ever minimising her feelings, while she mourned the loss of plans and dreams for her son, and fretted about his future.

Kyle Jetsel from the Autism Laughter Therapy is also cautious about the first interactions with a parent that has recently discovered their child is on the spectrum. He warns against upholding false expectations. As a parent with two autistic children, he knows first hand that raising these children can be difficult at times, and may entail considerable sacrifices. Of course, overall, each family learns to love differently, grows and can thrive with their child, but parents should be prepared going into the adventure to “decide they will come out happy”, without trying to “fix” their child.

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Google Autism, Santa, by Lisa Smith, Quirks and Chaos

If you want to do additional research and be part of the parents’ lives, Lisa also advises asking them which book they recommend you read to better understand their child’s case. “The autism spectrum is so wide, the book I recommend might not be the same book your friend might recommend to you.” Showing that you want to read up and better understand will also reassure the parents on your desire to accompany them on their journey.

Interactions Within Defined Social Circles

You may know a family with a child on the spectrum, but not be close to the parents, and still want to do what’s best in social settings, or help put them at ease. Birthday parties and school events come to mind, as it can be difficult to anticipate what sort of interactions the child and their parents can manage and enjoy.

While social environments can be stressful for some people with autism, they also help improve social skills. Lisa’s son Tate attends a mainstream school, and many of the children there have grown with him. In first grade, Lisa gave a talk to the class about autism and explained some of Tate’s behavioural differences.

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Boys Say Hi, by Lisa Smith, Quirks and Chaos

“I remember asking the students to promise me they would always be as nice to Tate as they were that year,” says Lisa. “Those students have made a huge difference for us. When one of them sees Tate struggling to pull on a jacket or find the correct page in a book, they jump up to help him. I’ve been out in public with Tate before and kids have come up to us said “hi”.” According to Lisa, none of these children get the same thing out of a friendship with Tate as what you’d normally expect, but their acceptance of his difference has given Tate a social network of sorts.

Interactions in Broader Social Networks

Lisa also encourages Tate to interact in public, even if it means telling a waiter that he will need more time to process information. Even though interactions with her son can be rather “strange”, as she puts it, and although relationships with him tend to be one sided – with Tate talking about his interests but mostly uninterested by whatever others may want to talk about -, these relationships do help Tate grow and develop. In fact, Lisa also points out that her son has created real bonds, mostly with adults – in part because they are more predictable than children -, and though these relationships take time – and humour – to build, they have had unbelievable impact on his development.

If you are confronted with the case of a child on the spectrum in your community, time and patience can help alleviate the initial awkwardness you may feel. Look to the parents for guidance if you interact with the child or their family. Most importantly, in the words of Lisa: “remember that an autism diagnosis is not nearly as scary as it first sounds. All the fears and apprehension will begin to fade somewhat after a time.”

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We’re doing just fine, by Lisa Smith, Quirks and Chaos

Additional Links

Some additional links for parents looking for more information. Please also suggest more to us, which we can add to the list.

Note: all images are curtesy of Lisa Smith (Quirks and Chaos)

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Diagnosing ASD and Unlocking Each Child’s Potential

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. This month we’ll be looking at what parents and specialists have to say on raising children on the autism spectrum.

A recurring question around the autism spectrum is: what signs appear first? In other words, how can parents know their child is on the spectrum and when should they consult specialists?

When and how can parents know something is unusual?

According to Doctor Jean-François Havreng, a development specialist based in France, some parents express concerns for their child from six months old. Often, they find the parent-child bonding process unusual, for example eye contact is rare or inexistent, the child’s body is hyper or hypotonic when held, or the child might seem deaf. Children any age can show signs of autistic behaviour, though Doctor Havreng is careful to point out that in the early stages, cues and hints are not definitive proof. And though in some cases these signs do indicate the child is on the autism spectrum, they might have an entirely different condition, or even just display oddities now and later develop along a mainstream learning curve.

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Love in the Family, by Kenny Tan

Doctor Havreng’s team runs an open clinic, located outside the hospital and in the center of the city, where parents can easily bring their children to meet professionals without stigma or fear. Trained specialists take the time to get to know each child, consider whether they present developmental delays and suggest tests. All the while, parents and their children are kept in a child friendly environment, with suitable toys and attractions.

There’s no way to understand a child’s developmental specificities in a few minutes. With this in mind, his centre takes a slow, measured approach to diagnosis, ensuring parents don’t feel overwhelmed. During each phase, the child interacts with several specialists, though the atmosphere is voluntarily not too medical (for example, no intimidating white lab coats), and more often than not, multiple evaluation techniques are applied to confirm and explain a diagnosis.

Diagnosing Unique Children
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Daring Cats and Mouse, by Kenny Tan

Each case of autism is unique. Understanding how a child on the spectrum can develop is complex, which is why Doctor Havreng recommends finding doctors with “extensive experience of developmental delays, including but not restricted to autism.”

The diagnosis gives parents a single word to explain and describe their child’s development. But for Doctor Havreng’s team, the diagnosis is just the beginning of a more important and fulfilling task: finding how children can thrive,  acquire skills and live a fuller life.

Focussing on Potential

Vincent Tan’s son Kenny was diagnosed aged 18 months. When he was finally given a name to put on his child’s uniqueness he felt both relieved and overwhelmed. He knew raising his child would indeed be challenging, but now he had clues about what that would entail.

His advice is to start with whatever issues feel the most pressing, asking other parents what they have tried. Some start by trying to make their child table ready for school – when appropriate -, others work on getting their child to stop specific behaviour patterns that create awkward or dangerous situations in the home. The quest for solutions is part of an overall discovery process to identify what makes your child tick.

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Wings Elephant, by Kenny Tan

Vincent admits the process has been difficult. There are many ups and downs and there is often no way of comparing or monitoring a child’s progress. In fact, comparisons with the development curves of other children, especially neuro-typical, can be demotivating and disappointing, as though their limited achievements reflect poorly on all the parenting put into their development.

From Childhood to Adulthood

Kenny is now 23, and has learnt many skills. He can ride a bike – in a safe environment without cars for example -, he can swim, and he has become an accomplished painter, selling his artwork in Singapore via the Everyday Revolution. He can read quite well, and enjoys reading classic literature works by Charles Dicken, George Orwell and Harper Lee. Writing independently, on the other hand, is still a challenge and needs a lot more work. In his father’s words “the most important trait is his willingness and his perseverance to try whatever the caregivers can have the patience to teach him”.

When Vincent reflects on the early years of his son’s education, he advises other parents to surround themselves with support groups, and get to know those who have similar problems. “Learn from their experience and experiments, together you will be more resourceful,” he says, with optimism.

Additional Links

Some additional links for parents looking for more information. Please also suggest more to us, which we can add to the list.

  • A short video to help explain how the world feels for people on the spectrum, by Amazing Things Happen
  • An (old) Letter to the new autism parent, by Eileen Shaklee (Autism with a Side of Fries)
  • 15 truths about parenting special kids, by Lisa Smith (Quirks and Chaos)
  • New words for parents of a child on the spectrum, also by Lisa Smith (Quirks and Chaos)

Note: all the artwork in this article is curtesy of Kenny Tan.

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