Setting Limits with Favorite Things and Activities for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Parents of kids with autism often struggle to balance embracing their child's specific interest with exposing them to new experiences in life and play. The key word here is balance. As human beings, we all have a right to engage in activities that are fun and exciting to us. If your child has highly specific and limited interests they deserve respect and love in the form of  time to do whatever it is that makes them happy, as long as they are not hurting themselves or others. But as a parent, you also have the obligation to teach your child skills and habits  (such as self control and to delay gratification) that they will need to be successful in the world. Follow the steps below to create a plan that will help your child gain more structure and control over how much time they spend with their favorite activities. 


Make a Schedule

Make a schedule with your child that includes specific, predictable, and reliable times in the day that they will have access to their preferred activities or objects. Only make plans that you are sure you can honor (especially when starting your plan). Your child will feel horrible if they have waited patiently for their favorite object or activity only for you to decide that they have to go to the grocery store with you instead. Use written or picture schedules that you and your child can refer to throughout the day. If you need help with creating schedules, contact us

Be Generous at First

Start by giving your child plenty of time with the activity or object. In the beginning, you may want to start with giving them the amount of time that they naturally spend with the object or activity before they move on. Over time, decrease the amount of time allowed. A gradual transition will help ease your child’s anxiety and resistance to your new limitations.

Ease the Transitions

Follow the preferred activity time with activities that are fun or enjoyable, but not other highly preferred activities. For example, one of my clients two most favorite things are playing computer games and reading books. She also enjoys (to a lesser degree) playing with playdoh and listening to music. In her daily schedule, I ease the transition out of computer time by having the next activity include music (Dancing, lunch with music playing, etc.)

Respond Calmly and Consistently

  • Respond calmly to your child’s requests. Your child will inevitably seek out or ask for their preferred activity or object and likely ask a LOT. Respond with an even and calm tone. Use a simple and routine response that states when they will next get access to the activity and redirects them to another or current activity (it is okay to use an excited tone to make the alternative activity more appealing). Some example responses are:
    • “We will play with trains after lunch. Let’s go outside instead.”
    • “Computer time is at 1 o'clock. Right now we are coloring this cool picture!”

Give Set Choices

If your child is having a hard time coping with being denied their favorite objects or activities, give them alternative choices when you tell them they cannot have their favorite thing. For example, “We can’t play with balloons now. Do you want to walk the dog or paint?” Giving set choices provides structure that your child can easily follow when they are feeling distressed.

Inform Your Child

And finally, inform your child about your plan. Children appreciate and will likely respond better when they are involved in the planning process. This also provides an opportunity for your child to learn how to be aware of and manage their own behavior. Read books with them about self control or doing new things. Social Narratives would be a great way to introduce a new plan to them. Even if you are not sure that your child understands you, always communicate with them as if they do. 

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