Researchers and educators are still uncovering the unique influence fathers and male role models can have on the lives of very young children, in ways that are quite different from the women with whom they share parenting duties. From a distinctive style of playing, to different conversational patterns, and even gender-specific behaviors they model to children–the unique way men engage is fundamental to a child’s development.
But how does this important dynamic change when your child is autistic? Dr. Temple Grandin, a successful scientist and writer on autism, has a unique ability to see the world through these children’s eyes; she was one of the first to identify how the sensory aspects of the condition can be the most relevant during early development, and her extensive writings are some of the highest regarded in the field.
Simply speaking, autism’s neurological characteristics make it difficult to differentiate outside stimuli like sound, touch, and light. Sensory overload can make people with autism withdraw, shutting out the world and the people closest to them. Between age 0-5, all children are still learning how to process stimuli and communicate with others; for autistic kids, early therapies and intervention play a key role in how their brains will develop.
When we look at the special skills of male figures in parenting their children aged 0-5, and apply them specifically to the needs of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) children, some interesting patterns emerge.
Michelle Flippin and Elizabeth R. Crais, two PhDs that focus on autism in very young children, discuss this topic at length in their article entitled, “The Need for More Effective Father Involvement in Early Autism Intervention” (Sage Journal of Early Intervention, April 2011)
For toddlers and preschoolers, play can be the best form of communication, and studies have shown pronounced differences between how mothers and fathers interact with their children. Male figures engage in more active play—they see focused play as an opportunity to problem-solve, and tend to build scenarios that stretch beyond the physical properties of the toys.
We spoke with LAUP Mental Health Specialist Ruby Velasco, who talked about the special considerations of male engagement when a child has autism.
Because of the father’s natural tendency to view play as a constructive exercise, Velasco turns first to activities for men to enjoy with their kids. “Mothers [during play] will focus on the meaning behind the activity, but fathers tend to be more solutions oriented, ” Velasco explains. So the activity captures their attention, but “as they’re working, they’re also talking,” and establishing those emotional connections with the child.
Flippen and Crais agree; because play is a key context for father-child interaction, they suggest adapting ASD parental intervention sessions to be more active and physical, such as including rough-and-tumble play, to make them more amenable to fathers. People-games, and those incorporating songs and movement, are other natural choices.
When it comes to conversation, research consistently shows that children have dramatically different language interactions with parents. Male figures tend to provide higher-level language modeling, including more challenging vocabulary and syntax, as well as more complex questions. Children use higher-level language in return, but also exhibit more communication breakdowns.
Fathers and male role models bring a unique dynamic into the mix. LAUP’s Ruby Velasco coaches parents to, “meet the child where they’re at” by adjusting their language level to the child’s competency, and modeling language that works just one step ahead of their child’s abilities, but not too far beyond.
LAUP’s Ruby Velasco was quick to emphasize the toddler and preschool years are a “critical window of opportunity” for parental engagement, especially for children experiencing delayed development. Our staff is committed to providing childcare professionals and communities with the tools and knowledge to draw fathers into the process.
You can visit our website, or ask your LAUP coach, to learn more about the ways LAUP is cultivating family engagement and supporting male involvement.
Here are some helpful links, to support your child’s emotional and developmental needs, and for various parental engagement ideas:
- LAUP encourages providers to use the Ages and Stages Questionnaire screening tool (ASQ). This questionnaire helps gather critical knowledge about young children’s development. For more information and resources, visit their website.
- Classroom Level Activities for Male Engagement
- Site Level Events for Male Engagement
- Strategies for Male Engagement
Source: Research study by Wolchik, 1983; Konstantareas, Mandel & Homatidis, 1988