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Fact-checked by Vincenza De Falco, Autism & Learning Disabilities Specialist Coach.
Hide and seek is a timeless children’s game that develops social skills, gross motor skills, and analytical skills needed for functioning well in society as adults. Children diagnosed with Autism have challenges with social skills and analytical skills. They may find it challenging to distinguish between pretend play and real, which poses a problem for them playing ‘hide and seek.’
An autistic child can play hide and seek, provided they are taught the difference between play and real life. They need to be prepared that people are hiding for the game and not hiding in real life. Keep the game to a limited area if your child is known for running off.
Hide and seek can keep your child developing social and analytical skills that they need later in life. If you want to know how to help your child learn to play ‘hide and seek,’ read on.
Hide and Seek Prepares a Child for Proper Social Interaction
Hide and seek keeps children playing together and learning how to take turns, as well as how to win or lose graciously. This can be the case because they lack theory of mind.
The reason for this is that they are unable to put themselves in another person’s shoes. They can struggle with empathy or compassion for what someone else is going through as they don’t understand non-verbal cues of a change in mood or thoughts.
Hide and seek can help an Autistic child learn how to take turns and be aware of those around them. Since the game requires cooperation among the players, Autistic children can sometimes be overwhelmed by what most children find to be a fun game. But it prepares a child for proper social interaction and cooperation later in life.
Build Up a Child’s Play Skills for Hide and Seek
Before a child with Autism can play hide and seek, complete with taking turns hiding and seeking, they should already be familiar with the concept of taking turns and how to win or lose graciously. They also need to understand that hiding is the nature of the game and that it doesn’t mean the other children aren’t trying to get away from them.
To build a child’s play skills to play ‘hide and seek,’ start by having your child play alone alongside other children, such as putting together a puzzle. Success at this stage might be completing the puzzle or sticking to their project without disturbing other children.
Once your child experiences success at solitary play, try having them play next to other children while sharing some of the same toys or puzzles. You may find that your child will either not be ready for this, refuse to share, or surprise you and share willingly.
As you go through the stages of play with your child, look for signs of cooperative play, which might involve your child working together with other children on inventing new games, rules, and working together with others to build something. Your child is ready to play hide and seek because they are cooperating with others.
Prepare the Child for What Happens in the Game
An Autistic child may not always understand that hiding or running away is part of the game. Nor would they automatically know where the game’s limits are and might wander into a dangerous area. For this reason, you will need to prepare your child for what happens in the game and why it happens.
To prepare your child for what happens in the game, you will need to do the following:
- Walk with your child around the area to find potential hiding spots. Since they may not quite understand how to hide for the game, you can demonstrate where and how to hide. Point out areas that may not be safe to hide as well.
- Waiting to be found can be difficult for some children, so give them something to do, such as play with putty, look at a book, or hold on to a stuffed toy.
- Take turns with your child hiding and seeking in a safe space. You might say something like, “I will count to 15 while you hide. When I find you, then you will count to 15 while I hide. Then you can find me.” Doing this will give him an idea of what to expect during the game.
Let the Child Know When It Is Appropriate to Hide
There are times when hiding is unacceptable, such as when they are in trouble, or you’re at the grocery store. Sometimes, children with Autism might get confused between play and reality and hide, thinking it is still a game when it’s not. When they hide at a store or in the park, and you have no idea where they are, this can be very dangerous as they might get taken or get seriously hurt, and no one can help them.
Before the child starts playing ‘hide and seek,’ go over with them when it is acceptable to hide, play a game, and not, as when you’re out in public. Role-play a bit to help them learn when they can hide and when they can’t.
Keep the Game Limited to an Enclosed Area
Even with the best intentions, children will wander off because they follow a bug or small animal. Children with Autism are no different in that respect, so you will need to ensure the game is played in a limited and enclosed area. A yard with a fence is ideal, especially if you’re unable to supervise the entire game. But a small park will do, as will playing inside the house.
Once your child knows where they can or cannot hide, they will enjoy the game more as they can relax, knowing they are following the directions.
Talk With Your Child Afterwards to Help Separate Play From Reality
After a good game of playing hide and seek, your child will still be on that emotional high from having fun with friends. And that’s fine, but they might have the idea that they can still play the game even when everyone else is finished and has gone home.
Sit down with them and explain that, while it’s okay to be in a good mood because they had fun, it’s now time to stop the game because it is over. Help them understand that play is play and that people don’t play all the time. It’s okay to remember the fun they had with their friends, but it’s now time to do something else.
Playtime and reality are difficult concepts for any child to grasp, but for children with Autism, they have a more difficult time with those concepts. So it would help if you had this conversation right after the game is over so they can transition a little easier.
A child with Autism can play hide and seek other children, as long as they can run or hide. If the child also is prone to seizures, you might want to play with them to ensure they are safe.
Take the time to prepare your child for playing with others, creating boundaries between reality and playtime, and keep them safe. If your child has difficulty with safety rules, try a therapy session with a trained counselor.
One more thing: try using a communication board with phrases such as, “Ready or not, here I come!” so the child understands how to play.
Vincenza De Falco is an Autism & Learning Disabilities (LD) specialist coach with extensive experience working with young people with various needs in different settings. Her passion for Autism & LD started as a volunteer at a multi-functional provision for Autism whilst studying for a BA in Theatre, Education, and Deaf Studies.
Throughout her career, Vincenza continues her professional development alongside working within numerous support and leadership roles in education and charities. Having gained Level 3 in Speech and Language Support, HLTA qualification, Level 3 Award in Education and Training, and Level 3 CMI Coaching qualification, Vincenza has furthered her expertise within Autism & LD.
Entering the Third Sector as a Project Manager developing and delivering a specialist NEET program, she subsequently joined ThinkForward’s newest venture DFN MoveForward, supporting young people with Autism & LD to successfully transition from education into paid employment. Through 1:1 coaching, family support, and training employers to become disability confident, Vincenza builds bespoke programs for young people with the end goal of work readiness and employment. Through Vincenza’s passion for creating systemic change in Disability and employment, she forms part of the successful partnership running the DFN Project Search Supported Internship at Moorfields Eye Hospital.
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