Special Needs Now

When Play Is Stressful for Kids with Autism

Toddler at bounce house
Play is hard for kids with autism because of their motor and communication challenges and differing social skills. But a recent study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience suggests that play might cause tangible, physiological hardship in kids with autism as well.

In the study, researchers from Vanderbilt University tested levels of the stress hormone cortisol in 42 children (some with autism and some without), between the ages of 8 and 12, before and after play in a playground setting. The study's co-author, psychiatry professor Blythe Corbett, told HealthDay: "The arousal level of the children with autism during play suggests that interaction with peers can be quite stressful. In this study, we also found a relationship between brain activity during play, behavior, and stress level."

The team at Vanderbilt also studied the brain patterns of the kids while they played computer games against a real person and the computer. Again, there was a marked difference between kids with autism and their neurotypical peers: kids on the spectrum "activated similar brain regions regardless of whether they are playing with a child they met or playing with a computer partner," noted Corbett.

Although this study tells us a bit more about the brains of kids with autism, some experts have pointed out the study's limitations. They believe more research is needed to really get at the heart of why kids with autism are stressed out by play.

On the level of day-to-day parenting, I think this study offers a reminder that we have to play with our kids on their terms, not our own. For example: my son Liam, who has autism, loves to jump and bounce—but, after a few minutes at Jumping Country (a warehouse full of colorful bounce houses, screaming kids, and blaring pop music), he's clearly stressed. I can see he wants to jump, but his heart is racing, his face is flushed, and he keeps running into the quieter party room to sit with his head against a cool window. For a long time, I used to drag him back into the bouncing area, and then it hit me: this was not play for him. It was stress. Like midtown-Manhattan-subway-at-noon stress. And that's not fun for anyone, especially for a kid with sensory challenges.

Now, I have a simple solution: I let Liam play like he wants to, not like I want him to. If he wants to jump on his bed for hours, fine. If he wants to dump and sort Legos instead of build with them, that's okay, too. And if he wants to go to Jumping Country, I make sure it's during an off time. I ask the staff to turn the music down, and I let Liam take as many breaks as he needs. Taking the stress out of play is one of the most important jobs I have as his mom because it helps him be happier, healthier, and more willing to engage with us for games, tickles, outings, and all the fun a kid should have in his life.

Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam (6) and Eliot (4). Her writing has appeared in the Autism and Asperger's Digest (2011-2013), Parents, and the book collection Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Parenting Kids with Special Needs. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter (@jamiepacton)

Understanding Autism: Sensory Issues

Image: Cute toddler girl posing in front of a bounce house via Shutterstock