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The Importance of Leisure Skills

The Importance of Leisure Skills

Helping students with autism live rich, full lives is at the heart of BAC's educational philosophy. We teach skills in communication, socialization, physical fitness, and vocation in order to increase their independence and opportunities outside the classroom. Although recreation may be overlooked as a critical skill, it is one of the most important for improving the quality of life. Especially with the holidays coming up our students will have more unstructured time at home and thus the need for leisure skills becomes that much more apparent.  Since the beginning of the school year, we've taken a new approach to teaching leisure skills that has made strides in our students' learning experience.

The idea of directly teaching leisure skills seems counterintuitive, but is necessary for children on the spectrum. Unlike their neurotypical peers, children with autism often lack the language skills to communicate their likes and dislikes or express opinions about the activities they engage in. Finding a leisure activity a child with autism enjoys involves a combination of trial and error, pairing with preferred items, and an open mind willing to try anything.

Our earlier method of teaching leisure skills followed a three-step process. First, the student's team (involving the educational director, clinical supervisor, and team of instructors) would identify a leisure skill they thought the student might prefer. Next, they would condition the skill by pairing it with something the student already liked, such as a favorite food. Finally, they would build the skill over time.

This was the approach taken when introducing Greta to knitting and crocheting. At first, this activity seemed like the perfect fit for her; stitching would theoretically replace some of her hand movements that led to interfering behaviors. After practicing stitching for [some time], however, Greta started to dislike it, and it only became more frustrating the longer her team tried to develop the skill. Realizing that they were forcing a progression that wasn't working for her, they discontinued crocheting as potential leisure skill.

That experimental system of introducing leisure skills was used for each student. Sometimes teachers struck gold and found an activity their students liked. More often, they found themselves in the same situation as Greta's team, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. 

The mixed success rate of that approach inspired educational director Julie Russell to revamp the way leisure skills were taught to our students. Now, every student has a long list of potential leisure activities to try throughout the year, and instructors look at the student's level of engagement and affect for each to determine if the activity is worth pursuing in the long term. 

These lists are created after speaking with parents and siblings to find shared potential interests, and with peers about activities specific to the student's age group. Teachers will also take note of activities that the student already enjoys and attempt to find similar ones. Lists are divided into several categories including technology, sports, and pretend play (to name only a few).

Changing the way leisure skills are taught has led to happier students and more effective teachers. As life-long learners ourselves, we've discovered a few important things about teaching leisure skills that can benefit all families attempting to introduce new activities to their children with autism.

- “If at first you don’t succeed, try at least two more times.” Knowing when to pursue a leisure skill and when to abandon it can be difficult, especially with a child resistant to changes in routine. Julie recommends trying an activity at least three times. If the child is adamantly against it, three times are enough to determine if the activity is a good fit. If the child is neutral or shows mild interest, keep trying at different times.

- Build the environment to facilitate the activity. Eli’s teachers tried to get him interested in reading, but sitting still at his desk for long periods of time was too difficult for him. Julie recommended setting up a large bean bag and his favorite blanket in the playroom and brought his books to that area. Now, he can relax in the playroom looking through his books. A simple change in environment may have turned an activity that was aversive to something he enjoys.

- Pair the activity with other things the child likes. Jesse has always loved music. Teaching her how to dance seemed like a natural progression. Our instincts were correct: she eagerly participates in her dance class every week and can do simple steps of several different styles of dance.

- Enthusiasm from the facilitator is key. When we try new leisure skills with each student, we don’t just consider what the activity is, but who is teaching it. An instructor with a talent for drawing is the perfect person to introduce a student to art. We consider our teachers’ skills when dividing the leisure skills among the members of the student’s team.

The same philosophy can be applied at home. Parents are more likely to find success with an activity if they enjoy it themselves. Ian’s parents both enjoyed playing ping pong, and after a summer of introducing the game to Ian, now they regularly play together as a family.

- Try everything and don’t give up. In one week, Venice has tried climbing the rock wall, walking on stilts, building with Lincoln Logs, playing SORRY!, and listening to house music.

Will any of those stick and become a new favorite thing to do? It’s too early to tell. But even if none of them make a lasting impression, there are still other leisure skills on the list for her and her teachers to try. When looking for a new favorite recreational activity, nothing is off the table.