Building connections with autistic children in the preschool - 3 steps to get startedFeb 02, 2023
In this blog, I answer a question sent by a preschool teacher:
"I would love to know more about how to deal with children with autism in the preschool room who don’t have language or social skills and don’t like other children coming close to them.
I would love to know how I can help and support them further".
Children with additional needs in Ireland are encouraged to attend community preschools, with support such as AIMs. However, preschool teachers may still face difficulties working with children with significant language delays, not engaging in the preschool routine, and not interacting with others.
In this blog, I will give you three steps to help start building a connection with an autistic child and make the classroom a safe and enjoyable learning environment.
Step 1: Create a Safe and Welcoming Classroom Environment.
The classroom can be a busy and noisy place, which can be challenging for children with sensory sensitivities, like autistic children. If you have space, create a quieter corner where the child can go if they feel overwhelmed and make it more conducive to their needs.
This quiet corner can include soft pillows and toys that the child likes. If you are still determining what activities the child likes doing, observe the child in the classroom to determine their interests, or ask the parents what activities the child might like and ensure these items are available.
Some children happily explore the toys on the classroom shelves, while others prefer playing in the quiet corner, sheltered from the noise and other business of the classroom. At this point, don't worry if the child is not engaging or participating in the classroom routine yet.
Your goal is for the child to feel safe and curious about preschool.
Step 2: Engage The Child With Simple Activities.
Start by engaging with the child with simple activities they enjoy. Some children may like exploring the classroom but not playing with any specific toys, and sometimes that is because the child does not yet know how to play with those toys.
Select simple toys. I often start with noise-shape sorters, piggy banks, stair balls, rainmakers, and sliding cars. One of my students loves when I sing songs to him, and another one enjoys the alphabet puzzle. All children are different, and sometimes it's a matter of trying different activities.
Sit in the quiet corner with the child, remove other distractions nearby, and present one of these toys. Demonstrate how to play with the toy, be patient and engage with the child.
This stage is about the child enjoying tasks and building a connection with you.
You are the one who brought this fantastic game, so your student might start thinking, "my teacher is fun!".
At this stage, you are going to follow the child's lead. Play games they are interested in, and when they lose interest, you either present another game or give them some time to play alone if that is what you feel they want.
You may need to spend weeks or even months at this crucial stage gently engaging with the child and showing them what they can do with different toys.
Step 3: Encourage Participation.
As teachers, we want to see our students develop friendships with others. However, autistic children often find many challenges with this due to their language skills, social skills and sometimes natural preference for playing alone. Autistic children may struggle with social interaction, but that doesn't mean they don't enjoy it. Sometimes it's because interacting with others may be difficult and anxiety-provoking, so they may prefer not to join in.
Observe the child's natural ways of engaging with others.
One of my students loves the sand table; he plays there even when other children are playing there too, and he doesn't mind the proximity of other children there, and at times, he stops and looks at how the others are playing with the sand.
Another one of my students loves playing with bubbles, and he enjoys watching the bubbles in the air and stomping them with his feet as they land on the floor. We recently invited another child in the class to play bubbles with us, and the two children popped bubbles laughing together.
At this stage, you are aiming for two things:
First, notice those activities where the child gets close to or tries to engage with other children.
Second, create opportunities for the child to engage with others with their favourite activities.
Supporting young autistic children in preschool requires a different approach than traditional methods. It's important that you find opportunities to learn more about autism and how to support autistic children in the classroom.
By following these three steps above, you can create a positive preschool experience for autistic children while helping them build connections with their peers and develop their social skills.
P.S. Join my Masterclass on Managing Challenging Behaviour
If you want to learn more about how to support your students to engage in the classroom, I will be teaching another Masterclass on Managing Challenging Behaviour for early years educators, teachers, SNAs, and parents. You will learn why problem behaviours occur and strategies for building positive relationships and preventing incidents. Bonus Q&A session included. Click for more information.