How To Get More Engagement With A Child With Autism

This post is for those of you who have a child with autism that has a difficult time engaging in interactions with others. They would rather play by themselves, and no matter how hard you try they’ll only engage in brief interactions with you. I am writing this for you. If this doesn’t apply to you, I would love for you to check out some of my other posts.

I’ll be honest, the reason I have been in the field of autism since 2007 is because of a teenager like this. He rarely engaged with anyone, he didn’t talk, and he didn’t make many gestures to communicate. No matter how hard people tried, he acted like he didn’t care. And yet we bonded.

 At the time I was a case worker at a care center, and I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but even the other residents would come to me to tattle on him and they’d say “Your boy” is doing this or that! He was the first person that I had really had consistent interactions with that had autism. I had worked with adults with various developmental disabilities for years, but this was different, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. 

Let’s call this boy Sam. As I look back on my experiences with Sam, I realize that I was actually doing some of the things that I now train parents to do. I’m going to talk about some of those things as we go along, and my hope is that you will find some new and effective ways to have more meaningful interactions with your child. These kiddos are some of my favorite kids to work with.

Engagement = Communication

In the PLAY Project,we call back and forth interactions ‘Circles of Communication.’ When one person initiates something, they are opening a circle. When the other person responds, they are closing the circle. The more circles you get, the more engagement you are getting. 

Oftentimes kids who have a hard time engaging may only have 1-3 consecutive circles at a time. The goal is to increase the number of consecutive circles your child is having with you. Our main focus right now is the quantity of circles, it doesn’t matter how big or small they are. We just want a lot!

Back and forth interactions are the goal

I’ll give you some examples of big and little circles. Sam and I used to like to play catch in the hall, when the ball would get past Sam I would say “Get the ball” and then Sam would get it. I opened a circle by saying “Get the ball” and Sam closed the circle by getting the ball. That is a big obvious circle. 

One of my favorite moments was when Sam opened the circle when I missed the ball. He started saying “gettheballgettheballgettheball” so I closed the circle, and I got the ball. That was the first time I had ever heard him say any words. 

A tiny or micro circle would be something like this, I was told by some of the staff that whenever I was in the hall and Sam would see me coming, he would get a little excitement in his eyes. Something small enough that I didn’t notice it down the hall. When I would walk down the hall towards Sam, I was opening a circle. The anticipation in Sam’s eyes was closing the circle. 

The smaller circles are tricky because if you’re not looking for them (and sometimes even when you are looking for them) they’re hard to see. It takes a lot of practice. This is when I would normally sit down with parents and show them a video of them playing with their child and then I could point out to them the circles. I’ll give you some more examples, but you don’t need to know if they’re big, small, or micro circles. I just want you to know if you’re getting circles.

Circles of Communication

Opening a Circle Closing a Circle
You say "Hi!"
Child says "Hi"
Child pulls your hand
You follow your child
You knock on the door
Your child opens the door
Your child reaches her hands up to you
You pick her up
You hand your child a toy
Your child takes the toy
You hand your child a toy
Your child turns away from you
Your child smiles at you
You smile back
You act like you're going to chase your child
Your child's eyes get big with anticipation
You sing a song and pause before you say the last word
Your child says the last word for you

How to engage a child with autism that's hard to engage

Now that you know what a circle of communication is, and you know that the goal is to get as many as possible, let’s talk about how to do that. Some kids no matter how hard you try to play with them, they either walk away from you or turn their back to you. Guess what though, that’s still a circle. Maybe not my favorite kind of circle, but it is a circle. Let’s go over some tips and tricks.


  • Don’t expect your child to share with you at this stage. It will just make your child want to avoid you even more if you keep stealing his toys every time you play with him. Get your own toys!
  • Don’t tell your child what to do. If your child is playing, even if it’s not how you would play, don’t tell her to do it a different way. For example, if Sara is spinning the wheels of the car, don’t come in and tell her to roll it on the carpet. Let her spin the wheels. If every time you want to play with her, you try to change how she’s playing, she’s not going to want to play with you. The goal right now is engagement, not playing with toys a certain way.
  • Don’t ask a million questions. If play time turns into a quiz, it’s not as fun. Don’t start saying things like “what’s this?” “what color is this?” “How many are there?” 
  • Imitate. Rather than making your child do what you want him to do, imitate what he’s doing. If he’s jumping up and down, you jump up and down. If he’s running around the house, you run around the house. Turn it into a fun and playful interaction.
  • Narrate. Like I said before, don’t give directions or ask questions, but narrate. Say what you see, what your child is doing, what you’re doing. In my first session with parents, I always challenge them to play with their child for 15 minutes without asking any questions or giving any directions. You should try it, it’s harder than it seems.
    • The reason I have parents do a play session without asking questions or giving directions is so that they can be aware of how often they do it. It’s not that asking a child to do something, or asking a question is a bad thing, I just want your questions and directions to be more purposeful.
  • Start with simple circles. If your child is playing with blocks, just hand her a block one at a time. Each time you hand her a block and she takes it, you’ve got a circle. 
  • Sensory motor play. If your child loves things like running, jumping, spinning, do a lot of this kind of play together. Each time your child wants more, wait for him to open a circle. And remember gestures are communication. Don’t tell him what to say, just wait expectantly for him to initiate something. 
  • Avoid playing with toys with lots of shiny lights and sounds. They may more exciting than you are and the competition is too hard.

Activity Ideas

Swinging In A Blanket
Swing your child back and forth until you can tell that your child enjoys this activity. If your child doesn't appear to like it, choose a different activity. Swinging can be overstimulating for some kids. Always be aware of your child's cues when swinging.
Once you know this is a motivating activity, swing for a few seconds, then stop. Wait for your child to give some kind of indication he wants more. It doesn't have to be words, it can even be a quick glance at you. As soon as that circle is opened, close it by saying something like "Swing!" and then start swinging.
Add to the routine by saying "ready, set, go!" before swinging. Once this routine is set, say "ready, set" then pause and wait for your child to open another circle. As soon as he gives you an indication that he wants more say "GO!" and start swinging. You just got another circle
The following are more ideas to get more circles. At some point you may lose the engagement, that's ok. Then you know what the limits are. Next time don't go as far. At times you may have to start at the beginning, and that's ok too. Just remember with swinging or any other activities that involve a lot of movement be sensitive to your child's cues and stop if your child wants to.
As you're getting more and more circles, we want to find ways to extend the play. We do this by adding to the routine. After you stop swinging, put the blanket down. Expect your child to find a way to get you to pick up the blanket before swinging again.
Next time put the blanket down and take a step back. Now your child may need to open a circle by taking your hand and pulling. You close the circle by taking a step forward. Then your child may put your hand to the blanket. They've opened another circle. You close it by picking up the blanket.
After a few times of doing the above, then step back and "fall asleep." Now your child has to wake you up, take you to the blanket, get you to pick up the blanket, get you to say "ready, set, go."
Make it a little harder each time to wake you up. Now you're getting a couple more circles. Your child opens a circle by tapping you, you close the circle by snoring louder. Your child then touches you again, you close the circle by acting like you're about to wake up, but then fall asleep again. Your child then makes some loud noise and you jump up. You just got 3 extra circles.
As your child understands this routine and is successfully able to get you to still swing him, next time take the blanket and hide under it. Over time run away and hide under the blanket. Now you're suddenly playing a simplified version of hide-and-seek.
You're now increasing the time between swinging, and you're getting lots and lots of circles of communication.
Sit face to face with your child and hold the jack-in-the-box at your eye level. This gives your child more opportunities to look at you and to be engaged with both you and the jack-in-the-box. Play with it until you know your child really likes it. If your child doesn't like it, then it won't be motivating enough to get a lot of circles. Find a different activity.
Set up a routine. After jack pops out, close the lid and say "close" then say "ready, set, go" or "1,2,3" before turning the handle. When jack pops out say something like "POP!"
Once the routine is familiar, pause before jack pops out and wait expectantly for your child to open a circle. Your child may look at you, she may try to move your hand to turn it more, she may even say "pop!" Whatever it is, close the circle by making jack pop up.
Next time pause after saying "read, set" and wait for your child to open a circle for you to go. Then add to it by waiting for your child to initiate for you to close the lid. Now you've got at least 3 circles.
Now you can keep adding to this doing similar things to what you did in the blanket swing. Fall asleep, run away, hide, hide jack, pause several times while turning not just at the end, just think of ways to get more circles.
Bouncing On An Exercise Ball
You can have your child sit on the ball, or lay on his stomach. Just make sure that you are positioned so that your child can look since this is about engagement.
Build a routine, just like you did with the other two activities. Put your child on the ball and say something like "on" or "up." Say "ready, set, go" or "ready, set, bounce" Do this until you know that it's something that your child enjoys. Just like the swinging, make sure you follow your child's cues. If he wants to stop, then stop.
Make up a song as you bounce him. I like to sing this to the tune of The Farmer in the Dell. "We're bouncing up and down, we're bouncing up and down, look at Michael, he's bouncing up and down." Another song you could sing is Row Your Boat, but you could change it to Bounce Your Boat.
Once the routine is set, do the same things that I mentioned in the blanket activity. Wait expectantly for your child to open circles. If your child is not indicating that he wants more bouncing even though he clearly likes it when you're doing it, you may need to do it a few more times without any expectations. If your child is not indicating that he wants more and he's not showing any enjoyment, then it's probably just not a motivating activity for him. That's ok, find a different activity.
Here are some ideas to get more circles. Take your child off the ball after each song and wait for him to initiate he wants you to help him back on the ball. Fall asleep on the ball until he wakes you up or pushes you off. Make the ball "accidentally" roll away. Do it the wrong way, instead of bouncing your child on the ball, bounce the ball on your child. He might actually like it, and then he'll have to figure out how to get you to do what he wants whether he wants to bounce on the ball or to be squished by the ball. If he lays on the floor, he's opening a circle to tell you he wants you to bounce it on him.

Use Activities You Already Know Your Child Loves To Do

Sometimes just being with your child is enough. When I say with your child, I don’t just mean in the same room, I mean being interested in what she’s doing. Sitting near your child and at eye level. One of the reasons that I think that Sam and I bonded was because I always took time out my day just to sit with him. Some days we would play ball, but some days we would both just stand in the hall and I would talk to him without telling him what he should be doing, just talking (narrating) about what we see.

I would encourage you to sit down and make a list of activities that you already know that your child enjoys. With the activities I listed above, you can see there’s a pattern of how to get circles. Think of ways that you could get circles with the activities that you already know are engaging. I would love to hear what your ideas are in the comment section!

Watching a child with autism strengthen their relationship with their family is the best

Engaging a child with autism in meaningful play is the first step to teaching your child so many things in the future. That initial engagement can be tricky for some kids, but it’s not impossible. There are other ways to teach a child to pay attention to you, but I prefer doing it through play. It’s more motivating, and your child is learning that you are fun and enjoyable to be with. 

I really hope that you were able to find at least one thing in this post that can be helpful to you. If you find you are wishing you had someone to help coach you through this process of increasing engagement, please consider setting up a free 30 minute consult with me. I’d love to help. By meeting with me one on one, I can learn more about your child and give you more specific and individualized ideas to help you get more engagement with your child.

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