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

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

Get a free copy of the Autism Activity Guide

Enter your name and e-mail to  receive your free Autism Activity Guide along with more tips, strategies, and techniques to help you increase learning and growth.


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 are looking for more ideas on how to engage a child with autism in play, sign up for your free Autism Activity Guide in the yellow section above and I’ll also send you more tips and strategies to your inbox.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Searching for practical ways to help a child, and wondering where to begin?

Get your FREE copy of The Quick-Start Guide to Autism Early Learning. This guide will point you in the right direction by helping you understand the different areas of development in toddlers & preschoolers.   Enter your name and email below for instant access.