Sensory play
Use everyday things to create your own sensory activities, says one mum. Image Credit: Shutterstock

“You’ve got to be excited, a happy participant,” says 36-year-old mum-of two Asma Fawad as she talks about her secret to keeping kids engaged over the summer break.

Fawad, whose 12-year-old son is on the autism spectrum, sends him to a summer camp in Dubai for a few hours in a day. The rest of the time, she devises interesting methods to keep him happily busy. “In 2020, when everything was closed he was home all the time, so I had to think of many activities to keep him engaged and entertained,” she says.

What exactly is the autism spectrum?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn and behave.
Source: US-based National Institute of Mental Health

Her other tips are:

Feed them a sensory diet: “My son seeks sensory stimulation a lot. So, we have a pool upstairs on the top floor of our building. I usually take him for a swim for an hour, sometimes couple of hours, that gives him a lot of sensory input. So his muscles are relaxed. And he's way calmer when he's in the water,” she says.

Buy a trampoline: “What many of us in the autism community do in the hot months of summer is, we buy a single person trampoline. We keep it in the middle of our living room so they can watch their favourite videos on TV as well as jump and give himself the stimulation that his body need,” she says.

Get a Person of Determination ID card: “If you live in Dubai and you have a Person of Determination identity card for your special needs child then you can show that card [at play areas in malls such as Magic Planet] there and they will give a wristband to your child and allow you to accompany them for free,” she says. The child can take certain rides for free as well as using their soft play areas and trampoline areas for free just by showing that card, she adds.

Asma Fawad
Asma Fawad with her 12-year-old son. Image Credit: Supplied

Stay patient: Don’t expect your neuroatypical child to act like neurotypical kids. “They have little tolerance for sitting, so you can't expect them to sit and do table top activities,” she adds. Should they get distracted, give them a few moment before calling them back to table. Use rewards to reinforce listening.

Use everyday things to create your own sensory activities: She says: “Like with dough; if you are busy working in the kitchen, you don't have time to give to your child intellectually or physically, you can just make them sit in the kitchen with you and give them some dough. It will be lots of sensory input for their hands which is very good for the fine motor skills.”

Throw in the kitchen sink: “You can also do a lot of activities like I usually do with my son that are good for his hand grip and eye-hand coordination. For example, divide the sink in the kitchen into two. On one side put a pot full of water and on the other part, you can put an empty one, and you can give him a sponge and then tell him to dip the sponge into the water and then squeeze it into the empty pot. This is very good exercise for the fine motor skills because usually the kids on the autism spectrum have problems with gripping and holding things, and their fine motor skills are not fully developed. It also keeps them engaged.”


Mum-of-four Zahra Al Jasim has nine-year-old twins on the spectrum; it’s what’s incentivised her to open her own therapy centre and run a summer camp. “For me, it's all about inclusion. So the camp is not necessarily just kids on the spectrum. We encourage parents to send the siblings because kids learn from other kids in a way. So they are mixed. They are divided by age group,” she explains. On site, kids do “fun activities” that are therapy infused.

Once home, she says a tad sheepishly, “I've tried to limit the iPad time, which is really difficult. But, you know, we have a trampoline at home, I tried to do some fishing and things – they need that sensory movement.

“On the weekend, I'll try to take a special party, like they love the waterpark. Try to sometimes set up play dates.”

Sometimes, says Al Jasimi, a staycation is a good idea. “But otherwise you know, like the normal days, I’ve tried to squeeze in some tutoring once a while with Arabic. I do feel like after school, in the summer, they're tired. I'm trying to also give them some free time. But then we have to find that balance between free time and wastefulness. Without structure, all the information you’ve taught the kids over the year becomes watered down.’

Travelling with ASD children

Summer holidays are great for travel. But with some children who are on the spectrum, the noise, the newness, the chaos can be overwhelming. “Yeah, usually, but for my case, my kid loves the airport,” laughs Al Jasimi.

“A lot of mums I know have really hard time with traveling. I tell them do a social story: show them through video or using photos what the process of travel looks like step by step,” she says.

One can also activate the DPNA (Disabled Passenger with intellectual or developmental disability needing assistance) code. “If anybody's traveling, you call the airline and you activate it. So they know that there's a determination within that family. And they try to like speed up the check-in process for you. Once I called ahead, and I planned it better. And they were very, very accommodating,” she adds.

 Shamaila Nawaz
Shamaila Nawaz with her son. Image Credit: Supplied

Shamaila Nawaz, CEO of Small Steps Learning Difficulties Centre, also has a 10-year-old son with autism. She says that she started her school because of this. “We provide ABA therapy for children with learning difficulties, but our program is a little different from the other programs, because we are part of the Gems Founders School,” she says.

What is ABA therapy?
Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a therapy based on the science of learning and behaviour. It is considered an evidence-based best practice treatment by the US Surgeon General and by the American Psychological Association. It uses the following strategies:
Positive Reinforcement
Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence. Understanding antecedents (what happens before a behaviour occurs) and consequences (what happens after the behaviour) is another important part of any ABA program.

“And we basically provide ABA therapy for the children who get rejected from mainstream schools. They can get all the therapy they need under the same roof. And we can support them with their academics as well. So that's our programme and that way, we slowly integrate them into the mainstream classes, help them and support them that way,” she adds.

She says that while kids see great improvements with ABA therapy, it doesn’t help if it’s done for a short period. “It's a lengthy process. And that's when you see the progress and you need to give them in a consistent way not just put them and take them out, you know.”

While ABA is a mainstream approach for kids, there is at least one detractor. Dubai-based expat Bee Sajnani explains: “I think with ABA therapy you don’t allow the child’s personality to thrive. It’s supposed to be – this is the world, how can I make it mine? Not, this is the world, how can I fit in. So I have a very different version [of therapy that I use with kids].”

I don’t want children on the spectrum to feel like they don’t have this superpower, because that’s what we have compared to the neurotypical. I have an amazing memory; I can multi-task. If you think of a problem, you’ll think of it from one angle whereas I’ll think of it from a 360-degree point of view – and that’ll be immediate.

- Bee Sajnani

Sajnani, who is autistic herself, adds: “I don’t want children on the spectrum to feel like they don’t have this superpower, because that’s what we have compared to the neurotypical. I have an amazing memory; I can multi-task. If you think of a problem, you’ll think of it from one angle whereas I’ll think of it from a 360-degree point of view – and that’ll be immediate.”

She adds that quite often autistic children will want to stim – a repetitive or unusual body movement or noise – and conventional therapy calls for the child to be made to stop it. “I stim every single moment I’m awake. I wear rings, if I’m nervous I will play with my rings but I won’t make it obvious. You just need to basically release energy and there’s many ways to do that; it doesn’t have to be hyper,” she says.

What is stimming?
Stimming – or self-stimulatory behaviour – is repetitive or unusual body movement or noises. Stimming might include:
Hand and finger mannerisms – for example, finger-flicking and hand-flapping
Unusual body movements – for example, rocking back and forth while sitting or standing
Posturing – for example, holding hands or fingers out at an angle or arching the back while sitting
Visual stimulation – for example, looking at something sideways, watching an object spin or fluttering fingers near the eyes
Repetitive behaviour – for example, opening and closing doors or flicking switches
Chewing or mouthing objects
Listening to the same song or noise over and over.
Many autistic children and teenagers stim, although stimming varies a lot among children.

“There was this kid I was teaching last year and he kept tapping his pencil which was annoying to me. So I would be like, instead of doing this, try to spin the pencil. So I taught him how to do that – and he was so busy learning while trying to do his work it changed the way he stimmed. It’s those little things that make a huge difference,” she says.

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