Why children with autism need to develop active engagement skills

Active engagement happens when a child is able to interact, communicate and participate with others. It should be a goal for all children to experience active engagement, because that’s when they are able to learn and make connections with others.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have a harder time becoming actively engaged, but it’s important that you help your child with autism work toward active engagement.

If your child is actively engaged:

  • He can manage his emotions and behaviors in a way that helps him be comfortable in his environment and notice what is going on around him. 
  • You and your child are participating in an activity together. He should look toward your face, respond to your language and communicate with you in some way.

A child’s level of active engagement may change across or even during different events and routines. That’s OK.

Helping your child with active engagement

Now that you know what active engagement is and what it looks like, there are many ways that you can help develop that ability in your child with autism:

  • Use routines whenever possible.
    • All children benefit from knowing what to expect, but it’s especially important for children with autism. By providing predictable steps in daily routines and using simple language, children can more easily understand what will happen next and what they’re expected to do.
    • Give your child motivating and meaningful roles as part of his routines. For example, during handwashing, allow him to turn the faucet on and off. Having active ways to participate and use materials helps children practice many skills.
  • Help your child pay attention and participate with you. Watch to see if he is following what you’re trying to do together.
    • Notice if your child looks in your direction, at your face. In these moments, he may also share an emotion, such as a smile or a look of confusion. Position yourself so you are face-to-face. This encourages children to notice you, your language, your facial expressions and your actions. Once your child becomes more familiar with a routine you do together, he may take on more ways to participate in the activity. Making the routine predictable may help your child notice your role in the activity. The more he starts to notice you and your actions, the more likely he will also notice the language you’re using to talk about the routine.
  • Be aware of what your child is trying to communicate to you. Is he trying to tell or show you something he wants or is interested in?
    • Communication can occur in many forms and may include using a word, sound or gesture like giving, pointing, showing or reaching. Give your child room to communicate with you. Pause and wait at predicable moments within an activity so your child can use his words or gestures.
    • Give your child choices to encourage him to communicate with you. For example, hold up two snacks to encourage him to use a word or gesture.
  • Help your child stay engaged through transitions.
    • Help your child work toward flexibility as an activity changes. Encourage him to use his communication to share new ideas or preferences
    • Use pictures or objects to help your child understand what is going to happen next. For example, show him a familiar bath toy as you announce that it’s time for a bath.

Active engagement takes practice. It doesn’t come easy. Use these tools to help your child work toward and achieve active engagement.

For more supportive ideas, read tips on motivating and engaging your child.


We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.