Nurturing Sibling Play When One Child Is on The Spectrum

With COVID-19 social distancing, siblings are sometimes the only playmate kids have. How can you help children with autism play with their neurotypical siblings? The experts at Gateway Pediatric Therapy have advice.

Brought to you By Gateway Pediatric Therapy
Kids playing pirates in boxes

COVID-19 has meant an often-dramatic change in routine for children on the autism spectrum, which can be especially challenging for these kids who appreciate predictability and patterns. Over the past few months, the team at Gateway Pediatric Therapy has seen the number of parent inquiries related to tips for fostering sibling play increase significantly. 

“In fact, it has been the most common request from parents during this time,” says Stephanie Maldonado-Velazquez, BCBA, Practicum Manager for Gateway’s Dearborn location. “Parents want their child on the spectrum to maintain the social skills they had previously acquired.”

Maldonado-Velazquez has been encouraging families to nurture play in their children, which not only encourages positive interactions between siblings, but also creates opportunities for their child on the spectrum to work on communication skills.

“Since children are not attending school or summer camp during this time, it’s important for parents to encourage siblings to engage in play activities similar to those practiced within the school or therapy environment,” she says.

Sibling play can help children on the spectrum develop important skills like sharing and taking turns through simple activities and games.

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“It’s important, though, that these games are within the children’s skill set,” says Maldonado-Velazquez. “You never want to set up a game that is too difficult for either child. You want to meet your children where they are and provide feedback as the game or activity gets underway.”

Maldonado-Velazquez suggests parents explain to the typically developing sibling important details about their sibling’s behavior during social activities and how he or she can help.

“Explain, in an age appropriate way, that he or she can serve as a role model for appropriate play behavior for his or her sibling,” she says. “Siblings often feel a sense of great satisfaction when they can help their brother or sister. It fosters a sense of pride.”

To get started, Maldonado-Velazquez recommends parents select an activity that both children will enjoy. She also stresses the importance of explaining how the game will work and anticipating potential conflicts from the start, in order to minimize them if they occur.

“For kids on the spectrum, it’s important to continually prepare them for what’s next,” she says. “We use a lot of ‘first, then’ statements to prepare them and also to prevent conflicts.”

Another important consideration is setting reasonable time limits on any new activity. Parents can gradually increase the duration of the activity and use modeling until children no longer need parent assistance and the siblings can independently engage in activities together.

“To minimize potential conflicts, allow the children to make choices and then be sure to offer specific verbal praise that you know your child responds to,” suggests Maldonado-Velazquez.

Among the activities parents can help facilitate with siblings are completing a puzzle together or playing with LEGOS.

“These activities help with taking turns and sharing while also providing a set end-goal,” Maldonado-Velazquez says.

Ideas for active play include follow the leader, tag, obstacle courses and following the steps to a song.

“These activities help with imitation, communication and gross motor skills,” she explains.

Quiet activities like watching a movie or short video together can help a child on the spectrum tolerate being in close proximity to others, a common challenge.

“Imaginary play can also be beneficial,” Maldonado-Velazquez says. “Pretend play promotes communication and social play.”

Ultimately, she says that sibling play can increase both children’s ability to interact with one another, creating an opportunity for a meaningful relationship.

Says Maldonado-Velazquez, “These skills can also be bridged to help your child on the spectrum interact in the community.”

For more information on the services provided by Gateway Pediatric Therapy, call 248-221-2573, send an email to info@gatewaypediatrictherapy.com or visit them online