You hold an ice cream cone in front of a child’s face, and it creates a party in the brain. The child’s brain activity goes wild and sees nothing to the left or right, only seeing what’s in front of him/her. What some may not know is with a child with autism, the brain throws a party when the child sees things out of his/her peripheral vision. If you hold an ice cream cone in the peripheral vision of a child with autism, the child’s brain activity will go haywire compared to if you held it in front of the child in his/her central vision. Studies focused on brain activity have shown the amount of high brain activity a neurotypical child has when seeing something in its central vision is the same amount of high brain activity a child with autism has when he/she sees something peripherally.
Most parents long for engagement with their child. We constantly prompt the child’s face straight into central vision to look at us. Most children will turn their neck and face to look at you, but their eyes will wander in their peripheral vision. Why? It is not always because the child is avoiding eye contact, it is because the brain sees better peripherally than centrally.
Here are some tips to help you better engage with your child:
- Watch Your Child
Your child is his or her own person: remember that. A child may have autism, but autism does not have him/her. We are constantly taking children to therapies and to school. We are putting children into our world and our settings. However, if we want to truly connect or help, we have to enter their world. Watch them when they are alone. Watch which toy they are attracted to, what they play with, or what colors they always pick. See who your child is and use it as a gateway to engaging with him or her.
- Become a Two-Year-Old: Parallel Play
Here is where the peripheral vision comes in. At two years old, most kids do not play with other kids: they play parallel or alongside. Take the information you found by watching your child. When your child is playing with a toy car, get a toy car, get in his peripheral vision, and mimic the exact same way he/she is currently playing with the toy.
- Sell It, Add Drama
After a few seconds of mimicry, do your own playing with the toy car, but add drama. Use the sensitive sensory system of child with autism to your advantage. Make loud car noises, make the car crash, do flips, or even let the car talk to you.
- Curiosity Doesn’t Kill the Cat: It Engages Your Child
Every child gets curious. The child’s brain will start to throw a party, and like every child, he or she will want the toy car you have. At some point, the child will break the barrier between parallel play, engage in your world, and put you into his/her central vision. At this point, he/she will enter your world and you will have entered the child’s world.
- A Fun Time With a Dash of ABA
When the child wants the toy and you have begun to play together, add in an applied behavior analysis (ABA) lesson while playing. Before the child can play with your toy car, have him/her put the car inside of a cup, on top of a cup, or on the side of a cup. Draw outlines of shapes with tape on the floor and have the child trace the outlines with car or put the car inside of the square/circle/rectangle. Throw the car into water and make a “big” splash or a “small” splash. The child gets what he/she wants and you get what you want. If the child tries to take your toy car and leave, redirect him/her in front of you.
- Enjoy Your Child
Remember not to forget to enjoy who your child is as you work to provide therapies and carry daily stress.
How do we fix this central vision issue? We don’t. Like anything else in life, we make weaknesses stronger. What you may not realize is that you are strengthening the central vision. When the child enters your world and brings you into his/her central vision, the child has chosen to use central vision. When he/she begins to play with you and you introduce the ABA lesson, you are strengthening the central vision—we are just using the peripheral vision, which is the strength, as a gateway to his/her weakness. The most important and effective part about these steps is that the child is choosing to play and learn versus being forced. The child feels as if you are his/her equal instead of feeling inferior. This makes the child more prone to getting something out of the teaching, and it’s fun!
Maria Rohan is a Registered Nurse at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Outside of the nursing field, Maria has dedicated her life to working with children with disabilities, trying to give the most opportunity possible. Having worked with children with autism for 10 years and having the autism diagnosis in her family, Maria writes interactive workbooks for children with this condition. She molds each workbook to their musical voice pattern, their attention span, and their likes. She currently sits on the PTO of STEPS Center for Excellence in Autism and continues to let her love for the children plant seeds of movement.
This article was featured in Issue 57 – Conquering A New Year