I have had the pleasure of caring for some of the brightest, most energetic and talented children in my childcare career. A small portion of these children have been on the Autism spectrum. While the days were certainly filled with challenges, they were also full of love, patience and learning. Every day, I learned something new from them and I learned new ways to approach everyday challenges for me and for the other children in my care. If this is your first time caring for a child with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), it is my hope for you that you have a wonderful support system in the child’s family to teach you and assist you in learning about your charge’s schedule, likes and dislikes, as well as any triggers that might cause discomfort to him or her.
Here are a few tips on things you can do throughout your day with your charge:
1) Picture schedules and exchanges
Whether you have a non-verbal charge with ASD or not, a picture schedule or picture exchange book can be a very effective way for your charge to communicate and to know what to expect out of their day. People with ASD are creatures of habit and routine. It would be helpful to have a strip with “steps” for the daily activities in a row, or magnets on the fridge.
- A picture of a child waking up
- A picture of breakfast
- A picture of a toothbrush
- A picture of music
- A picture of a playground, etc.
Whatever you have planned for the day, adjust the picture schedule to reflect that. If your charge gets upset about a part of your routine, you can refer to the schedule to show him or her that FIRST we have to brush our teeth and THEN we can play music. A PECS book (Picture Exchange Communication System) can be helpful for a child with ASD, whether or not they are verbal. Take pictures of your charge’s favorite things: foods, toys, games, arts and crafts, playground, eating, bathroom, clothes, and television shows. Attach them to Velcro in a photo album type book. If your charge is having trouble communicating to you what they want or need, they can refer to the PECS book to show you what it is they want. This can eliminate a lot of frustration for your charge.
2) Sensory Play
Many people, with or without ASD, have a sensory processing disorder, , myself included. This means that the information that is being processed by the brain can cause the person great discomfort or distress. What might feel soft and smooth to you can feel like sandpaper to a person with a sensory disorder, or vice versa. By slowly integrating some sensory activities, a child with ASD can become more sensory tolerant and be able to focus better on daily activities. After figuring out what your charge enjoys, get a shallow bin or container and fill it up! There are many things that can be used in sensory play such as shaving cream, sand, glitter, play dough, moon sand, foam, packing peanuts, dry rice, beans or cereal, cotton, water, soap, feathers, paint…the list goes on! You can match what you put into the bins to what the child is most recently interested in. Throw some toys in there. This can keep your charge engaged for quite some time, please be sure to supervise them to avoid any substances being put in their mouth, whether non-toxic or not. It would not be a pleasant experience for either of you!
Due to sensitivity to many things in the environment, such as sound, light, and colors, some children with ASD find it hard to sit still. They may become very fidgety and some will even flap their hands. They can find it difficult to resist behavioral impulses; and different motions may be a soothing mechanism for them, such as squeezing playdough. When trying to get a child with ASD to focus, it is best to keep their hands busy with a manipulative. Legos, blocks, gears, shapes, magnets, tangrams, beads and any sort of stacking toy are great manipulatives to use during structured play with your charge. Some things can even be homemade, such as a stacking toy or shapes and tangrams. Many of my charges have enjoyed stringing beads or Fruit Loops to a string or pipe cleaner, depending on what they were better able to manipulate. Doing so also gave them a sense of accomplishment and they could make a necklace out of the finished product. Find what your charge loves to do best and make it fun and exciting so it doesn’t seem like it’s purely a task that they are required to do.
4) Gross Motor
Gross motor skills use a person’s larger muscles such as running, jumping, climbing, throwing, catching, hopping, skipping, etc. Autism Spectrum Disorder is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder. Some people with ASD might have low muscle tone(hypotonia) and poor coordination, due to dyspraxia, or trouble processing the messages sent from the brain to the body. You can reinforce these skills with your charge by doing simple things throughout your day such as marching instead of walking, balancing on an imaginary line or a crack in the sidewalk, or even by turning daily activities into a game of Simon Says. You can also get out to the playground and simply by using the playground equipment, your charge will be practicing gross motor skills. Grab a ball or some bean bags and practice throwing and catching. Blow some bubbles and have your charge try to catch them! I have yet to meet a child that doesn’t love bubbles!
Depending upon whether or not your charge is sensitive to auditory input, you can use music in your daily routine as a nice little break. Some children with ASD can handle the noise and movement, and others may not be able to. For the chlild that is able to tolerate it, put some tunes on and have a dance party! You can make some homemade musical instruments with your charge to use during your dance party or mini parade. Ribbons and scarves are also fun to use during music play. You can march and dance and exert a lot of physical energy for the day; especially good for a rainy day activity! For the child who is sensitive to loud noises, you can playquieter music (classical music, for instance) or, if you are musically inclined, play a softer instrument like acoustic guitar or a xylophone.You can use a snow globe or make your own. You can also take an empty plastic water bottle, fill it halfway or ¾ of the way with water, put a few drops of colored oil in with it and some beads or glitter and super glue the lid on. Most children will enjoy shaking it up and watching what happens inside! Music can have a calming effect when combined with a manipulative such as these.
There are certainly many other approaches to learning and play for you to apply to your job as a nanny for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. What works for one child may not work for another. There are many helpful books and articles to aid you in your journey learning about ASD and your charge’s needs. Keep yourself educated, have a lot of love and patience and you will have a wonderful experience with your charge!
Amanda Dunyak attended Kean University for English Education with a minor in music, her other passion. Currently, she is a nanny working and residing on the New Jersey Shore. She has been a babysitter, nanny, and household manager for well over 20 different families throughout her career. She was also an instructional aide with special needs children, a teacher’s assistant, and a preschool teacher over the past 19 years, so childcare is in her blood. She is the owner and operator of Nanny Extraordinaire Child Care Services, LLC where she helps match up nannies and parents based on similar beliefs and personalities, helps with the interview and hiring process and sets nannies up for training to help them deal with the many situations they will face. She also has a blog for nannies called Diary of a Super Nanny and is an writer and Street Team Leader for Nanny Magazine. View Amanda’s posts here.