Does your kid ever act-out in public? Does he or she have a special need, learning disability, or developmental disability? Young children with communications barriers, like autism or a hearing impairment, may act-out to communicate an unmet need. When a child can’t simply tell us verbally that they are tired, cold, hungry, scared, bored or lonely, they will find another way. The other way can mean misbehavior — screaming, darting around, and sometimes even slapping or biting.

Play is like a basic human need, just like food, water, or shelter. If a basic need is unfulfilled, there are consequences. Sometimes that unfulfilled need is plain old boredom or loneliness. Experts in early childhood development, child psychologists, and child life specialists suggest that parents engage their children through play, as one way to manage misbehavior. I also know from the experts and personal experience, that engaging kids with autism or Asperger’s, by simply listening, paying attention, or just being actively present or playing can calm their behaviors as well.

The best memories of my own son’s childhood are the ones involving unstructured play with toys and other objects. We would just throw the toys out on the carpet and see what happened next. By manipulating their toys and other objects in their environment, children gain a sense of control and accomplishment, as the things around them seem to bend to their will.

Children constantly have to suffer limits and rules. Rules like, ‘you can’t wear your Sponge Bob pajamas to school.’ Everyday they are repeatedly told that they can’t do this and can’t do that. Constantly having to set limits is tiring for parents and it’s just as tiring for kids to test them. When we play with our kids they get to set the rules and limits, or at least they get to set most of them. Adults just need to keep everyone safe. Dump out a bag of simple toys and let the kids run the show! No rules about what to do with the trucks, dolls, and squishy balls. When kids are fussy or anxious, setting needless limits is the last thing you want to do. This is also very true for kids with developmental disabilities, like autism.

In future articles, we will present suggestions from experts like child life specialists and child psychologists, on strategies and tools (toys) we can have readily available to manage our kids with developmental disabilities and behavioral challenges at home and in public. We will also discuss how to help our developmentally challenged kids navigate in a world that often seems very foreign to them—the neurotypical world—our world.