Sensory Social Routines

Is your child way more interested in toys or items, than interacting with people???

A hall mark of autism is a lack of interest in social interaction. Children with autism don’t seem to experience as much natural reinforcement in social interactions as other children do. In fact, there’s research that shows that one of the basic biological differences underlying autism is this decreased internal value from social interactions (Dawson, G,. et al, 2001).

Children with autism often seem more interested in their favourite toys than initiating any sort of social interactions. The spot light of their attention is often on items e.g. lining up cars, playing on an ipad or watching TV.

So how can we turn the spot light onto us?? How can we teach children with autism to become more interested in people and why is it important we focus on this??

The good news is that this is actually something we can work on; we can teach children with autism to value social interactions by creating enjoyable play experiences. You can actually increase your child’s experience of pleasure in social interactions and their intrinsic motivation to seek out and enjoy social engagement.

But why do we need to invest time and energy doing this??

Not finding social interaction as valuable as most other children means that children with autism are not seeking out as many opportunities to interact with others as other children do.

This is a problem because we learn A LOT of other skills from social interactions e.g.

  • Communication
  • Language
  • Object use
  • Imation
  • Play
  • Friendship
  • Pretending
  • Emotions

It makes sense that the reduction in learning opportunities in everyday life which results from fewer interaction adds to the social-communicative delays in autism.

Having fun together is so important because:

  1. More fun = fast learning. Nearly everyone, of any age, wants to continue activities they’re enjoying. Having fun keeps you and your child engaged in an activity which leads to more practise and therefore more learning.
  2. More fun = more learning opportunities. The longer you interact with your child having fun the more learning opportunities you can create.
  3. Adding fun to a learning activity aids the learning and memory process. Pleasurable activities result in more faster and durable learning than carrying out activities that do have any emotional meaning.
  4. Your child’s cues that tell you she wants you to continue a fun activity are the basis for your child’s learning to communicate. Zoom in on your child and become aware of subtle responses such as looking and anticipating, smiling, reaching, or bouncing with excitement. All of these cues can eventually be developed into clear gestures, words, and eventually sentences!
  5. A favourite activity is its own reward! Repeating an enjoyed activity after your child communicates wanting more of it provides a strong reinforcer for your child’s communication. The power of teaching through play is built on this natural reinforcement system.
  6. Being a very frequent source of fun and pleasure increases your child’s attention to you at all times. As your child learns what kinds of fun activities the 2 of you can do together, your child will start looking for more opportunities to do them with you, which means more engagement, more communication and more learning opportunities.

You might be thinking…. all of this sounds a bit familiar and you’d be right! I’ve blogged about ‘pairing’ before and this blog expands on that to focus specifically on having fun with sensory social routines.

The goal is to help you increase your child’s smiles and laugher during face-to-face social games, songs, and social exchanges using ‘people play’.

So, down to the nitty gritty – how do you do this?!

Try out the following;

  1. Create fun routines from songs, physical games and touch and accompany them with lively face, voices and sounds.
  2. Pick an activity – a physical activity like tickling, bouncing, flying through the air or swinging, playing songs or face-to-face games like peekaboo – any games that capture your child’s interest and attention and bring forth big smiles.
  3. Try to find an activity that doesn’t involve toys/objects.
  4. Do something inviting to your child’s attention focused on you.
  5. Narrate as you go and pause often and wait for the child to cue you to continue.
  6. During play pause every so often and wait, looking expectantly at your child to see if your child seems to want you to continue.
  7. Create big events; the most dramatic moment of the game e.g. if you are playing chase, the big event is the moment you are positioned and ready for the chase.
  8. Pause right before the big event and look expectantly at your child. Get your childs attention, then GO!
  9. At the end of the big event, stop, look at your child excitedly, place your hands and body as if you are about do it again and wait.
  10. Wait for some action/sound from your child that invites you to begin again. E.g. a gesture, eye contact, a sound.
  11. When you notice your child’s attention start to lag, say, “all done with (airplane, or whatever game your played” and give your child a hug and be finished.
  12. Tip = repetition is key. The more familiar a game is, the more it becomes a “routine” the more the child can participate as a full partner and the more child learns.

Take home point and ideas

Think of lots of different ways to make playing with you MORE fun than playing alone. Ideally don’t have other toys available (eliminate the competition for your child’s attention), and initially focus on playing with your child doing things like games and songs without objects as well as silly faces/noises:

  • Pattycake (with hands and also with feet)
  • peekaboo,
  • the grand old duke of York
  • this little piggy
  • round and round the garden
  • chase/I’m gonna get you!
  • Swinging through your legs
  • Incy wincy spider
  • Wind the bobbin up
  • If your happy and you know it
  • Airplane
  • Ring around the rosy
  • The wheels on the bus
  • Dancing to music
  • Blowing raspberries on his tummy/face/feed
  • Fake sneezes
  • Fish face
  • Whistle
  • Pop your cheek with your finger
  • Tongue machine – pull on your ear and stick out your tongue, then push on your nose and pull in your tongue – make sound effect for each


Dawson, G., Et al. Brief report. Recognition memory and stimulus-reward associations: Indirect support for the role of ventromedial prefrontal dysfunction in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 3 (31) 337-341, 2001.

Rogers, SJ., Dawson, G., Vismara, L.A, An Early Start for Your Child with Autism (2012)

Join our FREE Facebook Community Group