For a while Puzzles were a big thing in our house. From age 3-4 puzzles was the main activity my autistic son would do. I want to write about puzzles as they seem to be a common interest for many young children with autism.
As puzzles were a big motivator for my son we could use them to support his development and speech and language. Do remember every child is different and there are plenty of autistic kids who don’t like puzzles.
When talking about autism you will often hear the term ‘special interests’. Many (again not all) autistic people have a specific interest. For some it is no different to having a hobby, for others it can go a bit further. A special interest can be described in many ways: obsession, passion, fixation, specialist subject or a comfort blanket. Every person or child will be different.
Some will have a particular interest from an early age and stick with it, others go through many interests. Young autistic children can need routine and sometimes a particular interest can become part of the daily routine and provide comfort when anxious. Most people have things they prefer. Often young children take this to another level, my neurotypical nieces are definitely obsessed with the colour pink and Disney princesses. In some cases with an autistic child the special interest can become the only focus for the child.
Common ‘special interests’ for young children with autism may be puzzles, Thomas the Tank Engine, dinosaurs or any typically childhood interest. They can also be something which may be seen as odd like drains or rubber bands. In some cases it can even be a person.
My son has gone through a few favourite things or special interests, initially Happyland toys then puzzles and now it’s books. The reason I would see them as more intense interests than your typical child is simply the constant need to play with the items. Often in a very repetitive way. It can be hard to get my son to focus on other things. He will also need to use the special interest items regularly throughout every day.
A particular skill of many autistic people is to have the ability to focus intensely on something. This may be a factor in why we see many autistic children with intense interests at a young age. Some people discourage special interests as they see obsession as a bad thing. Personally I think it is important to encourage the interest. If a child has a special interest use that to your advantage. If your child has a motivator it can make interaction and learning much easier.
Puzzles & autism
Ok so getting back to puzzles! So how do puzzles help with a child’s development? Having puzzles as a motivator for your child is great, they are brilliant for developing many skills:
- hand eye co-ordination
- fine motor skills / dexterity
- problem solving
These are just some of the benefits of jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles are a reliable activity with a clear objective which can be very appealing for people that like structure. Puzzles are also a visual activity again another strength for many autistic children.
There are so many types of puzzles (more on that in a moment). You can start with simple two piece puzzles and move onto puzzles with hundreds of pieces.
My son has often amazed me with puzzles, he is so quick to see the solution. At 3 and a half he could sit for an hour working on a hundred piece puzzle. It is these moments that helped me to realise that whilst he isn’t meeting the typical development milestones he is excelling in other areas. The first time my son turned a puzzle over and completed it just based on the puzzle shape I was really surprised. I know I would really struggle and probably give up on a puzzle based just on shape but my 3 year old could do it as he has that ability to focus.
Using puzzles to support speech development
The first thing most speech and language therapists need to know is what motivates your child. I remember when my son was two years old I really struggled to answer this. He didn’t seem to have any strong motivator but he did have a sweet tooth and often for young children chocolate or bubbles are the key motivators. So if your child has a strong motivator you are winning, you need something your child will want to request from you.
My son is still non verbal but we use Picture Exchange Communication System® / PECS® it was when he became more interested in puzzles that we were able to improve his use of PECS with more opportunities for requesting.
There is lot’s of opportunities to extend this requesting and develop further. Requesting specific puzzles, in the example below we use another motivator a Paw Patrol puzzle.
You can also develop attribute skills such as the number of pieces you require:
Or the type of piece and colours:
Using puzzles as the key motivator we were able to introduce requesting attributes (colours / numbers) and creating longer sentences as my sons use of PECS developed.
The autism puzzle logo
So you will often see a puzzle piece used and wonder what the meaning of the autism puzzle piece is. You will also see the puzzle piece logo used in autism awareness campaigns. As mentioned above many young children with autism enjoy puzzles. They are structured, visual, logical with a clear end so it is not surprising they appeal to this group. Stereotypes are regularly used and a child playing with puzzles is an autism stereotype and as such has been used regularly in logos for autistic organisations / campaigns.
It is now fair to say this is not a very helpful symbol whilst it may reflect a large number of autistic toddlers it doesn’t really fit well with the autistic community as a whole. It has also been described as symbolism that autistic people are a problem to be solved. The puzzle piece also fits more with young autistic boys so another reason autistic females are seemingly overlooked. In the past the puzzle piece was regularly used as the autism logo. In a move away from this a recent branding change for the National Autistic Society has seen their logo reflect the autism spectrum.
History of puzzles
I realised I had no idea where puzzles came from so had to look it up. John Spilsbury a cartographer is credited as the inventor of the puzzle. In 1766 he created a puzzle as a tool for teaching geography. He attached a world map to wood and cut out each country creating the first puzzle. Realising this was a good business opportunity he created several map based puzzles to sell.
My favourite puzzles
I could go on for hours about all the different types of puzzle but instead I will share my favourite puzzles with you.
For a great present Orchard Toys do a lovely Giant Town Puzzle.
You can even get puzzles for in the Bath!
You can also try out 3D puzzles which thanks to the numbers on the back of the pieces turned out to be easier than I thought. We like our 3D Minion puzzle.
One of my absolute favourites is this Wooden animal alphabet interlocking puzzle
Both my boys really love our alphabet train puzzle.
I almost always use a puzzle in our TEACCH activities at fist it was more simple Shape recognition puzzle to Magnetic pattern boards and now logic shape puzzles like the Kanoodle Jr puzzle pictured below.
My youngest is just getting into puzzles and I can see this as an opportunity to try and get the boys doing something together (hopefully).
You may also be interested in my post on Kids Activites.