All posts by deland73

Tommy Laroo ALWAYS gets told what to do!

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Tommy Laroo is a smart, precocious, non-verbal autistic boy who is always getting bossed around, smothered with questions or loaded up with tasks, and demands. Accompany Tommy through his day to see what it’s like to have constant demands placed on you without a voice of your own to express how you feel, what you think or what your prefer. As it turns out Tommy does have something he’d like to share with you. Will you listen?

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HOW you play is crucial!

What’s your play style and why?

For well over a decade I have been teaching families to play with their children on the autism spectrum as a way to further develop their child’s social ability. All too often I see people who think they are playing, when in actuality they are not. Let’s refer to this as non-play playing…I say this playfully of course!

Types of non-play playing include:

The narrator: This is where the adult in the room follows their child around narrating everything that their child is doing. This generally stems from a discomfort of not really knowing how to get an interaction going.

The Interrogator: Someone who spends at least 50% of the time asking their child what they want to play. Again, generally comes from not knowing what to do.

The Over Requester: Generally speaking the over requesting style of non-play reflects a belief that response equals progress. Since many children with autism have been taught to respond when delivered a request or demand this can be an easy way for a therapist or parent to give the appearance of progress.

The Tasmanian Devil: This play partner operates at one speed, and that is light speed, these well intended play buddies tend to equate speed with excitement and are generally worried that if they slow down or stop that their child will leave the interaction. The Tasmanian Devil tends to be quite fun for many kids, but  is an unsustainable style of play for most everyone!

The Mouse: This person tends to be too tentative to really initiate any kind of meaningful interaction. Usually worried that they will be intruding on their child and will ultimately drive them away.

The Control Freak: This play buddy tends to overplan activities and will consider them a failure if they don’t go as planned. These play buddies can be highly organized, but also highly attached to something going the way that they planned it.

The Boring Buddy: This play style can happen for a number of reasons, but is characterized by someone who doesn’t have much affect or energy and doesn’t try to become a central focus of the game or a driver of your child’s motivation. Sometimes growing from an insecurity of some kind, like believing  “I’m not fun enough” or “I’m not creative enough”. Often times if the Boring Buddy can shed some of these beliefs and let themselves cut loose they find that they are quite fun and very creative!

These types of non-play playing although common, are not set in stone and can vary greatly from person to person. Really anyone can learn to be a more effective play partner for their child or a child they work with. If one or more of these rings true for you not to worry! they ring true for just about everyone at some point, the good news is you can change!

Here are some attributes of an effective play partner:

Socially Magnetic: This refers to being fun, playful, dynamic and silly. Think of Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura!

Using a motivate and wait approach: Building your child’s motivation for something you are doing and then waiting and leaving space for them to communicate in order to continue an interaction.

Confidence and Presence: Being confident in yourself and the ideas or activities you are initiating can go a long way in sparking interaction. You are a salesperson for interaction with another person, and like all good sales reps you have to be confident in your product.

Tapping into your inner child: Forget therapy, forget meeting goals, let go of the concept of progress. No child on this planet is playing with the purpose of meeting their IEP goals. Play as a therapy, works best when your main goal is simply to have fun, get back to your play roots and be a kid a gain. You will be amazed at what your child will do when you step out of your therapist role and into the role of child.

To get a jump start on becoming the most effective play partner you can be, check out the following training modules:


Play like a pro: 4 tips for playing with your ASD child

Play like a pro!

Create the optimal play environment. Putting together a room in your house that is low on distraction, free of electronic devices or battery operated toys and nothing that you need to say “no” to.  A bedroom sized room is generally ideal. You want to be able to go in shut the door and leave your phone outside! Having a few shelves to keep toys and distracting clutter up and out of the way. Doing this will make it easier for your child to focus on interacting with YOU!

Be the best toy in the room! Once you have created a low distraction environment it’s time to standout within it. Brightening your affect, playing with energy will help your child attend to what you’re doing and offering. Think about how much your child is drawn to cartoon characters, the Wiggles, Disney movies etc.  Imagine being a social magnet that draws and attracts your child to the interaction.

Drop your agenda. Using a play therapy approach is different from traditional therapies in that you must prioritize having fun and let go of a teaching agenda. Let go of asking questions or placing demands on your child while playing. Get out of the frame of mind that thinks “what can I get my child to do?” and switch it to “How can I be the most fun for my child?”. This can be difficult for many parents and professionals. That nagging feeling of “I need to teach them something….NOW!” is hard to let go of. The problem is, your child will sniff out your intention and if your primary objective is to get them to do something than you’ll turn them off from the interaction. It can feel counter intuitive and requires a BIG let go for many of us, but the dividends are worth it! ( Related link: Motivate and Wait)

Make your main goal: Shared Enjoyment. The reason play therapy is effective for teaching social communication is because it creates and presents people as fun, user friendly and accepting. When you create fun interactions, you build a fire in your child’s belly to seek out interaction with other people instead of exclusively objects. When your child enjoys something they figure out how to make it happen, when your child shares enjoyment with another person they will figure out how to make it happen.



What’s your ritual?

For many on the autism spectrum, exclusive, repetitive or ritualistic behaviors can take up a big portion of  time and attention. There are many perspectives on how to address these behaviors that mostly focus on how to stop or change them.

What people tend not to think about is that in one way or another we all have rituals, routines, repetition and exclusivity somewhere in our lives. For many of us we guard these sacred actions with gusto and sometimes ferocity! For me, there is nothing more relaxing than sitting with a fresh cup of strong coffee in the early morning while reading a favorite blog or catching up on emails. I know that once I start my day there’s no looking back, so I tend to be quite protective of this simple yet sacred ritual. If someone was actively trying to interrupt, distract me or stop this from happening, they would get a very clear message from  me to go away. Not only that, but I would form a pretty strong opinion of them in the process, that would impact my relationship with them moving forward.

How and why we approach an ASD  child’s ritualistic behavior is important. Wanting to stop a child’s behavior because it looks strange to us, makes us feel uncomfortable  or we just don’t understand it are just not good enough reasons. I’m not saying we should never help a child to stop doing a repetitive behavior, but taking the time to understand my child’s reasons for doing it and how important it is to them should be our first priority.

For example, I have worked with many children who carry certain objects with them where ever they go 24/7, and become incredibly distraught without them. Sometimes the objects they carry may seem a bit odd to everyone else, but to them they provide an extremely important sense of comfort and stability in an otherwise  unstable world. So while as a parent or professional I may be tempted to take these things away from my child as a way to help them “fit in”, I have to first stop and ask myself why?  If it’s not harming my child or anybody else than what’s the problem? Why don’t I try it for a while? Why don’t I see what happens if I choose a more relaxed approach that seeks understanding and acceptance.

Don’t get me wrong I am well aware that some “autistic behaviors” can interfere with an autist’s life in profound ways. I have even had kids that I have worked with say that  there are certain things that they do, that they would like to stop doing. However, that choice should be made by them, not us.




Aaron Deland

Becoming a Dad

Over the last fifteen years I have worked and played with hundreds of families and their children on the autism spectrum. I rough house, I tutor, I teach, I learn, I laugh, I change diapers, clean up vomit, I get hit, bit and scratched from time to time, but mostly I am reminded over and over again the impact a loving, playful, connected relationship has on any child, or parent for that matter. When you work with families in this way you inevitably become part of the family. In doing so I have often felt like an older brother or uncle to many of the kids I work with. But in just a few weeks I will get to experience becoming a father for the first time.

I am completely and speechlessly excited….. and terrified about this. For over a decade and a half I have been someone that parents have turned to for help connecting and playing with their children. And while I am very experienced and very good at what I do I am not a parent….yet.

Everyone tells me that I will be such a great dad. Really? How do you know? I am experienced at helping parents with their children, but that hardly gives me a pass at becoming and growing into a good or even great father to my son. While I may be better prepared than many people, I still have to show up and deliver. I don’t for a second think that this is a “gimme”.

I often say that my greatest teachers have been the children I work with, and so I expect this little 8 pound human that is about to rock my world will be my greatest teacher yet (and cutest). Of all the unknowns of raising a human being, of one thing I am sure is this, I am about to learn a whole lot more about myself. Some of which I may not want to see, but I will embrace all of it.

Thank you to EVERY family that has ever allowed me the pleasure of working with them. I have learned and grown so much and feel incredibly grateful for how prepared I feel to be a dad.


Aaron DeLand

Founder of Play. Connect. Grow.



“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”

-A.A. Milne

Remember when you were young and it was a few days before Christmas, Hannukah, your birthday or some other big event you were excited for? Remember the feeling of butterflies in your stomach, the anticipation of it all? That feeling is often as good or even better than the actual realization of these events.

Anticipation is also a powerful force when it comes to helping your child connect with another person. People often think it’s the reward itself that drives a child to communicate, grow and develop. Although having some sort of pay off is important even crucial in this process, it is primarily there so that you can create anticipation later.

Let me give you an example. I often play physical games with the younger children I work with. I might chase them like a monster and then toss them into a pile of cushions, give piggy back rides etc. I initially do this to give them a taste of how fun I can be, once they “get it” I slow the pace of the game stopping frequently, and then move in slowly towards them. This creates a sense of anticipation. I want them thinking “I can’t wait to play some more!” It’s in these moments that we help our children build a deep desire for social interaction.

It’s in these moments I see the highest quality eye contact, joint attention, spontaneous language, gestures and participation in the social process.

What things do you do with your child that they love?

The next time you play with them try building the anticipation, don’t ask questions or make requests, but rather let the anticipation compel them to communicate with you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.




“Motivation will almost always beat mere talent.

-Norman Ralph Augustine

Most of the professional world approaches working with children on the spectrum by using external motivations, in other words with toys, candy, videos, computer games etc. Really what we are talking about is, with-holding something that a child wants until they do a specific task or fulfill a request before receiving said “motivator”.

I am not saying there is no use or place for this, but make no mistake, when it comes to teaching a child to be social external reinforcement has a few inherent flaws:

  • You’re setting up a dynamic where your child experiences people in a “transactional” way instead of an “interactive” way. (read more here)
  •  You’re teaching your child that social interaction is getting in the way of what they REALLY want. (it’s a chore)
  • It’s not self sustaining. Meaning that children can be become dependent on something outside themselves to be socially communicative instead of tapping into their internal desire to be social.
  • External motivation brings a child’s focus to a thing rather than a person. New exciting toys, video games, or electronics create competition for your child’s attention.

To really teach children to be social communicators you have to help them fall in love with interaction. They need to grow an internal motivation to initiate social communication. We help them do this by becoming the motivation ourselves, we need to be the central focus or at least add value to whatever the activity is. By doing so my child begins to associate fun and usefulness with people. I want my child thinking about how much fun they have when they are interacting with me. I want to leave them wanting more.

I know I’ve done my job well when a child is dragging me back to their playroom or parents report that their child seems to be more connected and spontaneously seeking out people more often.

Do your best not to rely only on external motivators, try and save that for doing actual chores or other things that just need to get done. When it comes to play and interaction let it grow from shared enjoyment. Play is it’s own reward!



Crying and whining and your reaction!

Does your child whine, cry or even tantrum when they don’t get what they want?

Many children that I work with use whining/crying or even tantrums to get what they want. I am sure many of you reading this can relate. The good news is, your child is communicating!

Your child is smart, and because they are challenged in communicating fluently they are going to use any effective means they find. As caregivers we have an internal urge to ‘fix’ what ever we think is wrong for our child. Allow yourself to observe what people do when a child starts crying, we talk faster, we move faster, we offer things, we give in. On some level we just want it to stop!

There are many possible reasons for our reaction to our child’s crying. We attach our value as a parent or professional to how happy our child is when interacting with us. We fear other people’s judgments about us when our child is crying in public. We find different reasons to pressure ourselves to “FIX” the crying.

I am not talking about when a child is hurt or truly sad about something, comfort your child, love your child support them!!! It is important to differentiate when your child is truly upset and when they are simply wanting something they can’t have.

When we find ways to “make” our child stop crying in each moment we are only putting a band aid on something that requires a longer term solution. In other words to really see an impact in this area, your child has to have a consistent experience of crying and whining as ineffective. Right now, crying moves the world in some fashion, it may not always result in your child getting exactly what they want, but it generally gets them something and has a noticeable impact on the world around them.

It’s up to us to flip that on it’s head, when your child is crying to get something, instead of moving quickly, sloooooooow way down and dial down your IQ about 20 points. Become a big, dumb, but very loving animal. Make crying an ineffective way to get what you want. On the flipside of that, move quickly and happily when your child communicates or even attempts at communicating in ways you would like to see (looking, pointing, talking etc).

When your child does use crying as a means to communicate something they want, slowly offer one or two things that your child DOESN’T really want and then calmly and slowly explain you don’t really understand, once you have explained once move on and do something else and let your child’s crying peter out. As soon as your child calms themselves become more attentive and responsive. In doing this you are giving your child a deep contrast to what the world is like when they are crying as communication, as opposed to when they are using their other social communication tools!

If your child persists, put them in their room, this is not a punishment it’s a neutral consequence, it is important not to send a message of them being ‘bad’. This is just about making it an ineffective way of communicating. As consistently as you can move your child to their room in as neutral a way as you can (no raised voice, move slowly and minimal eye contact).

DO NOT keep explaining to your child or try to talk them down, this tends to make matters worse. DO NOT offer alternatives that they actually want. I have families tell me all the time that crying really isn’t a problem, but when I take a closer look it’s because whenever their child starts crying they offer something to stop it.

This works best when things are consistent, anybody who is still giving into your child when they are crying is supporting this form of communication. They will most likely target this person or people to get what it is they are looking for.

The general idea is to set reasonable boundaries for your child and if they react with crying be loving, but be slow and after a short while (30 seconds -1 minute) stop trying to help. Let your child figure it out. Experience is the greatest teacher and if they experience crying as ineffective they will invest more energy in other forms of communication that they find more effective.

Teaching your child to use other means of communicating has everything to do with us! What kind of communication are you cultivating?

  • Important note! Sometimes during this process children will “test” their parents, they will intensify or lengthen their crying to see if they just need to up their game! Push through it!

Transactions vs. Interactions

Interactions are different from transactions

When I go through the grocery store check out I speak to the cashier, I make a little bit of eye contact, I make a physical gesture and in doing all of this I complete several social loops. Sounds like an interaction, right? Well, technically yes. But really what I described was a transaction.

I train a lot of people to work with  children, and one of the most common things I see is what I call “transactional” play. Basically, I’ll give you “X” when you do “Y”. The main problem with this model is that you’re often times not teaching your child to learn a skill for the right reasons. In other words, I want my child to look at me because they think I’m funny, interesting and exciting to watch, not because I am with holding something they want. Interaction happens when both parties involved are sharing the enjoyment of what ever it is they are doing

I always know when I am working with a child who has been taught to relate to people in a transactional way. They rarely use their communication spontaneously and it is hardly ever with much expression. When kids learn to communicate through interaction, in an atmosphere of enjoyment with another person social skills develop more naturally and from a place of instinct and of deep wanting forconnection.

I firmly believe that when it comes to cultivating social development in children with autism, there is no greater skill for a parent than being able to interact through play.

Play is a language that ALL children understand and is very much a doorway into your child’s world.

What’s one thing your child likes YOU to do? Do they like when you sing? do they like when you chase them? do they like when you tickle them or squeeze their feet? Do they like when you use a cookie monster voice?

Be what your child enjoys, as you know, your child’s sole purpose in life is seeking out what they like and they do it with a laser pointed persistence. The more you become the thing that interests and motivates them, the more communicating and interacting is in their best interest.

That’s the key, it isn’t about “look at me. Great here’s your cookie” it’s about “look at me because when you do I make you laugh, I help you, I give you love and adoration, I am a huge source of enjoyment!”

“Transactions” are for getting your child to do chores, “You want to go to Target and get a toy? Great, clean your room!”… “Interactions” are for inspiring your child to WANT to be social!

Welcome to the new Website

Welcome to Play. Connect. Grow.

It has been a dream of mine to create this parent resource for several years now. Cost and availability are the two biggest hurdles for parents wishing to access quality services. For the last 15 years I have been traveling all over the world to teach parents how to use play to develop their child’s social communication skills.

It was great for the families who could access it, but reaching one family at a time is slow going! i wanted to reach thousands, I didn’t want financial status or geography to stop anyone from accessing these tools.

I hope you find the lessons in this site to be useful in your journey with your child.

Go forth and play!