Inviting a friend to play on a tire swing can be difficult for autistic children, but with special kinds of playgrounds cropping up in Maryland and around the country, it may become easier.
The Shafer Center, a school in Owings Mills for autistic children ages 2 to 8, recently installed a playground intended to help children with social interaction and motor skills.
Specialized equipment can "foster social interaction" between autistic children, who sometimes have a more difficult time interacting socially and using social cues, experts say.
"A lot of pieces on the playground require more than one person," said Kristen DeBoy, an applied behavioral analysis therapist at the Shafer Center. "It sparked social interaction."
The playground features a tire swing, a track, a balance beam, a group see-saw called a we-saw, and a new take on a merry-go-round called the omni-spin. The playground equipment is similar to what's used on regular playgrounds, but it has sensory elements, such as a slide with rollers, that are helpful for autistic children.
The Shafer Center isn't the only local school with such a playground. The Kennedy Krieger Institute installed one in 2012 for its students, and there are others around the country.
Researchers began considering playgrounds as a form of therapy for children on the autism spectrum as early as 1975, said Luke Kalb, a doctoral student in the Johns Hopkins University's department of mental health.
The playgrounds can be geared toward the "deficits" autistic children have, such as the lack of social skills or penchants to be overactive or lethargic. They can also help develop motor skills.
Kalb said playgrounds can be therapeutic because they present the appropriate level of physical challenge, support imaginative play and help children structure their movements.
How much these playgrounds benefit autistic children is an area that needs more research, Kalb said. But "I still think it's promising," he added.
Playgrounds can also be used to observe children and identify whether they have autism, Kalb said. This concept has been around for a long time.
"Playgrounds are a more naturalistic and unstructured" method, Kalb said. "It's a good environment to better understand child development."
DeBoy said she worked with a child who didn't like talking to other children and mostly played alone, but because of the we-saw, which requires more than one person to use and has four seats with backs as well as a spot in the middle, he started asking friends to play.
This is a great thing for teachers and parents to witness, as parents' No. 1 concern with autistic children is often "Will my children have friends and be able to play with other kids?" DeBoy said.
The motion of a tire swing can jolt children out of lethargic moods or help calm them and drain excessive energy, DeBoy said. When the swing sways back and forth like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, the motion can be soothing; when it spins like a top, the sensation can awaken children.
Autistic children respond to texture and movement, using certain motions and feelings to develop motor skills and identify where they are in space, DeBoy said. The feel of something like a roller slide against a child's body can also be soothing.
The school moved into its new home in Owings Mills in December and discovered that the property had more room for a playground. At the center's previous location in Reisterstown, the playground was much smaller, said Helen Shafer, founder and president of the Shafer Center. The new one spans 108 by 35 feet.
DeBoy said the new equipment is "much more appropriate" for the students and that it would be better for any child.
"There are really user-friendly facets for multi-sensory integration," she said.
Stella McBride's son, Michael, 6, attends the Shafer Center. She said that since the playground was installed, she's seen his desire to play with others increase.
"It's huge," she said. "Social interaction is what makes our world go around, it's such a key component to being independent and going out into the world."
The new playground was designed by a local company, called Sparks@Play, which specializes in creating unique outdoor spaces.
Sparks@Play said kids are playing and learning at the same time without realizing it.
"We want to make sure [we] can get these elements where children can get face-to-face time but not be structured in a classroom setting," said Stephanie Sparks, a principal of Owings Mills-based Sparks@Play.
Shafer and other employees were very involved in picking out the equipment, and McBride said that "speaks volumes about the care they have for the kids."
Using the playground equipment may also benefit children later in life, DeBoy said.
While there is no research on it yet, she believes success on the school's equipment can build confidence in students and allow them to feel that they can play on playgrounds in their neighborhoods with other children.
"If we do it now, it will already be in their repertoire," DeBoy said. "If they have a play date they might think 'I know how the see-saw works, I can play with Johnny.' ... They feel successful."
The skills learned on the playground, such as asking another child to play, can also bleed into other parts of the child's life, possibly making them feel comfortable enough to ask a friend to sit with them at lunch, or play inside with them on a rainy day, DeBoy said.
"It feels to me the kids have become a lot more social" since they started using the new playground, DeBoy said.