April 1, 2015 marked a historic first. It was the first time in the history of the U.S. that a president officially declared World Autism Awareness Day complete with festivities, $1.3 billion in federal funding to further ASD and related brain research, and a declaration with a Presidential Seal.
“On World Autism Awareness Day, our Nation recognizes all those around the globe who live on the autism spectrum. We celebrate the countless ways they strengthen our communities and enrich our world — and we reaffirm their fundamental rights to participate fully in society, live with respect, and achieve their greatest potential.” – President Barack Obama
This is great news for families of those who are living with a member with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). And, it was just the beginning. Throughout the month of April, organizations like Autism Speaks and The Autism Society have been motivating and engaging the whole nation through social media, local activities, and cutting-edge research releases. Some of this research has been around the use of play to help retrain the brain so that ASD children can manage their emotions and socially interact in positive ways.
Although playgrounds hold many benefits for children with ASD, it can often be intimidating if you don’t look for the right kind of setup and play structures. These are the 10 things you should look for so that your playground can be a soothing, relaxing, and engaging experience for your ASD kiddo.
1. A Walking Path
New experiences can sometimes lead to emotional outbursts. Make sure that your ASD child feels comfortable with the playground by taking him or her on a walk around the structure first. That will give your child a much better overall feeling for how the structure works together and how it might be played on.
2. A Nature Area
The feel of sand between the fingers and the sound of running water is relaxing even to the most agitated child. Look for a park that combines natural elements in a natural setting. These will often calm a child with Autism and can lead to hours of quiet and introspective play.
3. Loose Building Materials
Several of our favorite playgrounds feature loose building materials that allow a child with ASD to create his or her own structure in a collaborative environment. Wooden blocks, styrofoam puzzle pieces, and plastic shapes can be a great way for your child to express creativity in a safe way. If the choices become too overwhelming though, make sure to choose 4-5 blocks and limit the options.
4. Incorporates Full-Body Movement
According to the Frontiers research, children with ASD may benefit from both random and motivated movement. That’s why it’s always good to find a playground that incorporates both passive (like being pushed on a swing) and interactive ( full-body movements in the playground structures. A great example is The Dancer, an interactive puzzle that requires children to stand on a platform and work a ball through the wiggly maze.
5. Provides Hiding Places
Children on the Autism Spectrum need to know that there is a place for them to hide if they begin to feel unsafe. That’s why it’s always good to go through the play structures with your children ahead of time and point out good places to go if they need a break. That way, you have a good idea of where they are when they decide to “become lost.”
6. Pressure Sensory Areas
One of the unique needs of the ASD is often to feel deep pressure to soothe them. Now, architects are actually building play areas that engage this special need. The Shafer Center in Baltimore, MD is a great example of this kind of design. They have developed several pressure sensory elements including a slide with rollers installed so children can feel movement as they go down.
7. Interactive Play Structures
The playground can be a very isolating place for a child with autism, especially since many play structures are designed to be played with individually. Elements like the “Integration Carousel” – A unique carousel that allows children of all abilities to easy ride together and get off safely – are designed for group play that is inclusive of children with Autism.
8. Choose Soothing Colors
Although color is a huge attraction for many children, it can be overwhelming and assaulting for children with ASD. Instead of bright reds, blues, and yellows, opt for natural beiges or wood. These are much less intimidating and help your child focus on playing instead of internalizing too much sensory input.
9. Wide Open Spaces
When the actual play structures become too draining (or too exciting) for your ASD child, it’s always good to have a wide open space for them to fall back to. Look for a park with hills, trees, or just a wide grassy space. A large fenced-in green area is perfect for a tired parent and an ASD child who needs to unwind.
10. A Dog Park
There is research that supports the idea that ASD social behaviors improve after a short interaction with animals – even just a few minutes – even more than just with toys alone. Depending on your child’s feelings about animals, it might be helpful to find a park that has a dog area close by. And, if you’re worried about strange dogs and your unpredictable child’s behavior, no worries. It can be just as fun to watch as to pet.
What have you found that your ASD child responds to when you go to the playground? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below!