I looked up at my grandmother from my place on the floor. I had been sitting next to a small table near the landing of the staircase that was covered in elephant figurines. “Where did you get all these elephants?”
She smiled at me: “My friends gave them to me. One day I mentioned that I liked elephants, after that everyone just kept giving me elephants. Now I have a whole collection.
She continued: “I do like elephants, but I am not sure I really like them this much. I keep them because they were gifts, and when I look at them I am reminded that I am loved.”
This conversation stuck with me for the rest of my life, to date. Sometimes, we participate in things we don’t exactly love, because others enjoy it.
Craft projects can be like that. Either for us or our children with autism, crafts may be something we do together, even if one of us doesn’t fully enjoy it. In this article I will let you in on the secrets of crafting with your kid, and the best ways to ensure it is a fun activity for all.
Benefits of crafting for children with autism
Occupational therapists use toys and crafts and other objects or activities to help children on the autism spectrum improve their skills. We as parents can do the same.
Here are some benefits of crafting for children with autism:
- building social skills
- bonding with parents and caregivers
- building fine motor skills
- fulfilling sensory needs
- increasing self expression
- self care
- other skill building opportunities
Quality time with loved ones, while mastering difficult tasks, in a fun setting can be very satisfying for all involved. Making crafting a good experience should build confidence and enthusiasm for doing it all over again soon.
What are good activities for autism?
In a study called, Preferred Play Activities of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Naturalistic Settings, we learn: “As many children with ASD have difficulty engaging and/or staying on task, and their behaviors can be atypical, it is challenging yet imperative to find meaningful play activities and experiences catering to their specific interests and ability levels.”
All children learn best through play-based activities. We are more likely to engage kids in the activity if they are interested in the topic or content presented. So, the first thing to consider when choosing craft projects for your children is what their interests are.
For example, a child who loves dinosaurs (if it is a special interest, even better) may be coaxed into enjoying a painting project if they get to paint a dinosaur. If that painting is done while in a quiet room with no distractions, the child may see their anxiety level over completing an art project decrease. Curating art activities for each specific child is key.
Knowing your child and what kinds of things they are into will clue you in to the themes they will enjoy when crafting. The next thing on the list would be where their interests lie sensory-wise.
What are sensory crafts?
In the same study it was revealed:”children with ASD often select toys, activities, and play materials based upon the sensory stimulation and feedback they provide.”
So, sensory stimulation should be high on the list when looking for arts and crafts activities for children on the autism spectrum. Sensory play is one way to engage as many of the senses as possible, providing the child with a more immersive experience. When a child is fully engaged, their ability to remember, enjoy, and repeat the experience increases.
Arts and crafts projects that involve sensory activities can include finger painting, sand art, and texture-rich objects like pine cones, felt, and food.
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Sensory craft activities you can enjoy with your child
A simple internet search can provide ideas and instruction for sensory arts and crafts for you and your child to do together. I wanted to provide you with two of my personal favorites.
One of my favorite sensory crafts is making eye spy sensory bottles. It can be done for children of any age, with materials completely customized to the child’s sensory needs and interests. The making of the sensory bottles is a sensory experience in itself. The finished product is an easy to successfully complete toy for sensory play—it’s a win-win.
You will need the following art supplies:
- a plastic bottle with a lid that closes securely
- a few drops of food coloring (optional)
- small household objects, toys
- room temperature water
Select the specific items your child wishes to use, and put them into the bottle, add food coloring if desired, add glitter and water, then glue on the top.
Another art project I love is finger painting a masterpiece. I love this art project because, again, it can be done with all ages (with a few tweaks) and is structured enough to provide a clear focus, yet unstructured enough to let imagination reign supreme. With a little care taken it can also be preserved for years to come.
You will need the following supplies:
- Finger paint (bought or homemade)
- canvas: blank paper, bed sheet, artist’s canvas, piece of wood (really anything you want!)
- Fingers: tiny fingers, big fingers, fingers covered with latex gloves (for those whose sensory needs require clean fingers at all times, and would otherwise avoid painting) all are welcome
- cleaning supplies such as: paper towels, warm water, soap, cleaning wipes
One thing to note about finger paint is that it can be made at home with ingredients that will be non-toxic if ingested. Flour, water, and food coloring when combined can make a great finger paint.
I actually have a painting my daughter did as a two-year-old with homemade finger paint. It has survived 14 years so far, and it is still one of my favorite pieces displayed in our home.
Once you have your supplies, it’s time for creating art! Lay out your chosen canvas, paint, and let your imagination guide you. It’s magical!
This is also a way to do something nice for someone else. It can build social skills, fulfill sensory needs, and provide an outlet and connection with others.
When crafting and creating art, anything goes. Here are some things you can use to add to your collection of art-making supplies:
- edible sand
- cooking spoon
- construction paper
- shaving cream
- disposable aluminum pan
- rubber bands
- tissue paper
- pipe cleaners
- egg cartons
- latex gloves
- liquid food coloring
- bubble wrap
- colorful sand
- washable paint
- large mixing bowl
- small mixing bowl
- drop cloth
- Slime (provides auditory feedback as well as a textural sensory experience)
Besides these, other supplies are more common. For example, crayons, scissors, markers, water color paints and brushes—the list goes on forever. It may take some planning, but the variety of materials offered make the whole project more fun.
How do you decorate for autism?
Many kids with autism enjoy multiple colors, textures, and interesting objects and pictures as part of decor. Others don’t. When decorating, especially when crafting decorations, it is important to keep your child’s preferences in mind.
Promote calm, function, and fun. The design of decor should be in line with its purpose. For example, if you are decorating a bedroom, keep the colors and illustrations to a minimum and geared toward your child’s interest.
If you are decorating for a party, consider how much stimulation there will already be in the people, music, and food. How will the decor add to that stimulation?
So much of decorating for an event can include crafting. If your child is involved in the process, listen to them. Teach them to self-advocate by letting you know what they like, don’t like, and why. Talk through the reasons behind the decor and how your child feels before and might feel during and after.
Tips on creating the perfect craft day for you and your child
A sensory diet can provide a structure for the perfect craft day, especially when combined with your child’s regular schedule. Many kids with autism improve their self regulation and self expression when their sensory needs are met.
If craft projects intrude on their regular game times or other activities, they are less likely to want to do them. Adding craft time, geared toward topics they enjoy or sensory experiences they crave, to already scheduled play times and sensory experiences may make the transition and experience smoother.
For example, if your child visits their sensory corner at 10am every day, adding a new sensory-based activity at that time as part of the “menu” can bring excitement and reduce stress.
Here are some other tips:
- Be mindful of the time. Starting a craft project when you are short on time is a meltdown waiting to happen
- Keep supplies on hand so that when the creative juices are flowing, fun projects don’t have to be delayed or interrupted by a visit to the store
- Know your child’s interests, skill level, and sensory preferences. Don’t try to get them to do a craft project they hate or will overwhelm them; make it about fun
- Involve your child in the decision-making, schedule, and materials. Planning ahead with them will make a huge difference.
I believe it was Thomas Merton who said: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Our children deserve to experience art in any form they choose.
Sometimes, a child’s unpredictable nature, unexpected behaviors, and sensory struggles can make crafting with kids with autism tricky. You may feel like participating is more for them than for you. They may feel like it is more for you than for them.
Building our relationship with our kids sometimes requires us to listen to long descriptions of things we are not interested in, making meals we don’t love, or watching movies that we are not into. There is beauty in doing things together.
Seeing that beauty and participating because of it is healing. Just like my grandma with her table full of elephants, these things remind us that we are loved.
By taking into consideration what we discussed here, we can find being creative with our kids can actually be an enjoyable experience for us and them. Seeing our child lose themselves in arts and crafts projects, then find themselves with new skills, is incredible. Learning about each other through self expression and quality time spent together will last a lifetime.
Doody, K, Merlz, J (July 2013) Preferred Play Activities of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Naturalistic Settings. Burlington,MA: North American Journal of Medicine and Science https://www.najms.com/index.php/najms/article/viewFile/223/230
Moghaddam, K., Zadeh Mohammadi, A., Sharifi Daramadi, P., & Afrooz, G. (2016). Effect of the Family-based Art Therapy Program on the Social Interactions, Verbal Skills and Stereotypic Behaviors of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Iranian journal of public health, 45(6), 830–832.