TUESDAY, Aug. 27 (HealthDay News) -- When free to choose, kids
with autism pick games that engage their senses and avoid games
that ask them to pretend, a new study finds.
Experts said the results are not surprising. It's known, for
instance, that when children do not show an interest in pretend
play, such as "feeding" a doll, by about age 2, that is a potential
sign of an autism spectrum disorder.
What is unique about the new study is that it went out into the
real world, said lead researcher Kathy Ralabate Doody, an assistant
professor of exceptional education at the State University of New
York, Buffalo State.
Doody's team spent six months observing children who attended a
local museum's Au-some Evenings, a monthly program designed for
children with autism. The program offered 20 exhibits with
different activities, including a train that children could climb
on, arts and crafts and a make-believe farm where kids could
pretend to pick vegetables and collect eggs.
The researchers found that children with autism were naturally
drawn to activities that got them moving, or allowed them to watch
moving objects. The biggest crowd pleaser was an exhibit in which
kids climbed a short staircase and dropped a ball into a track to
watch it travel over hills. Another favorite was a windmill that
the children could spin.
On the other hand, arts and crafts, and exhibits that required
pretending were the least popular, according to the findings, which
were reported in a recent issue of the
North American Journal of Medicine and Science.
"We know that kids on the spectrum have a fascination with things that move, and with repetition," Doody said.
In contrast, she said, pretend play requires "putting yourself
in someone's shoes," and talking and acting as if you were another
person. That's an ability with which children with autism spectrum
The current findings are what you would expect, said Dana Levy,
a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry
at NYU Langone Medical Center, in New York City.
"I think it's a really nice idea," Levy said, referring to the museum's autism spectrum disorders program.
"We do know that kids with autism are able to practice social skills when they're doing something they enjoy," Levy said. So if an activity gets your child around other kids -- and talking or learning to take turns, for instance -- it could benefit his or her development.
"If it becomes just a solitary thing, though, it's not really helpful," Levy said.
Plus, letting children do only the things they're innately drawn
to can be limiting. When young children with autism spectrum
disorders are in therapy, pretend play is typically part of it,
But if there is a social setting with activities a child with
autism enjoys, parents can use that as a door, Levy said. If your
child loves the museum's stair-climbing exhibit, on your next visit
tell him or her that you're going to try one new thing first and
then go to the stairs, Levy suggested.
It's estimated that about one in 88 children has an autism
spectrum disorder -- a group of developmental disorders that hinder
a person's ability to communicate and interact socially. Autism
spectrum disorders range widely in severity: Some children speak
very little and have an intense preoccupation with just a few
things, while other kids have normal or above-normal intelligence
and milder problems with socializing.
For the current study, Doody's team watched children during six
Au-some Evenings events. An average of 31 children with autism
spectrum disorders and 22 without (usually siblings) attended each
night. One limitation of the research, Doody said, is that they had
no medical information on the children, including the severity of
Doody, who has a child with an autism spectrum disorder, said it
would be helpful if more public places had events like this, since
parents can struggle to find activities the whole family enjoys --
particularly if they also have kids without autism.
She said the current findings could help community programs
develop inclusive activities so kids with autism have more chances
to interact with typically developing children.
"Being in a social environment is great for them," Levy said.
Even if your local museum doesn't have a special program, she
said, it might have something that would appeal to your child. If
he or she likes to look at maps, for instance, a museum or park
that has maps scattered throughout might be a good place to
Autism Speaks offers
resources and advice for families.
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