Autism and Play: 6 ways to help your child play

Play helps children develop gross and fine motor skills, language and communication skills, problem-solving, and social skills.  Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can impact and interfere with how play develops, but there is a lot you can do to help develop your child’s ability to play.

Children with ASD enjoying playing, but they may find some types of play difficult.  They tend not to play in a varied and spontaneous way.  You may find that your child plays in a repetitive way, or has only a few favorite toys.  For example, your child might complete a puzzle in the same order every time.

Because ASD affects the development of social and communication skills, it can also affect the development of important skills needed for play, such as the ability to explore the environment, share objects and attention with others, respond to others and take turns.  Understanding the intentions of others can also be impaired.

But your child can learn and develop the skills needed for play, and you can help.

Young children engage mainly in six types of play that develop in stages:

Exploratory play

Your child will look, feel, and mouth objects.  Encourage your child to explore objects around her.  Splash water in the bath.  Give her sensory toys and lots of floor time.

Cause-and-effect play

Your child will play with toys that require an action to produce the desired result, for example, pressing a button for music, or a jack-in-the-box.  This type of play gives children a sense of control over their play.  Praising a child with ASD when he does the right action, will encourage correct actions.  Use this type of play for teaching taking turns for young children.

Functional play

Your child will play with toys in the way they were designed.  For example, pushing a car or throwing a ball.  Engage your child with ASD by sitting in front of her so she can see you and see what you are doing.  Offer two or three choices of toys she enjoys.  Join in with what she is doing, rather than trying to guide her play. You can start by copying what your child is doing, then add to the activity. For example, if your child is spinning the wheels of a car, you could spin them too. Then turn the car the right way up and run it along the floor saying, ‘Brrm, brrm’.  If your child doesn’t copy you, you can encourage her to play. You could do this by saying, ‘Your turn to drive the car’, taking your child’s hand and placing it on the car, then move it across the floor together.

Constructive Play

Your child will build or make things that involve working towards a goal or product, for example, completing a puzzle, making a tower out of blocks, or drawing a picture.  Some children with ASD might have delays in this area of play whereas others will progress much like typically developing children or may excel at a skill like completing jigsaws or drawing.  You can encourage constructive play by showing your child what to do (modeling) or by providing the materials and actively engaging in the activity.

Physical play

Your child will run around and exercise his whole body.  This type of play teaches your child gross motor skills.  You can help your child with ASD to participate in physical play by starting at an early age and engaging together in active games.  While some children do not like “tickling” and other “rough housing” games, they may do well with “Simon says” and “hide and seek” games that do not require the same level of touching. his is when children “make believe” and use their imaginations during play. Examples of this type of play include pretending to dress up like a princess, feeding a baby doll, “playing” house, and creating scenario based play activities.

Pretend play

This is when children “make believe” and use their imaginations during play. Examples of this type of play include pretending to dress up like a princess, feeding a baby doll, “playing” house, and creating scenario-based play activities.  Pretend play is the most sophisticated form of play and is particularly important for developing the skills needed for social relationships, language, and communication. This type of play is often delayed in children with ASD, but many children with ASD can and do ultimately develop pretend play.

Children with ASD may also display deficits in sequencing. As a result, they may not develop play scripts or understand the play scripts of other children.  You can develop your child’s imaginative and pretend play skills by breaking the pretend play activity into steps. You can use written or picture instructions (cue cards) to help your child understand what to do.

Pretend play also includes role-playing. Try beginning with your child’s favorite story and getting him and others to act it out. Provide costumes and suggest funny voices for the characters. By slowly and gradually changing parts of the play, you can guide your child towards independent creative dramatic play.

As your child’s play skills develop, you can begin to use play to help your child respond appropriately to social situations that he might find challenging, such as understanding social rules like sharing, turn-taking, compromise, and negotiation.

Once a month Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine offers an evening of pretend play at no cost to families with children on the autism spectrum (ASD).  Pretend City offers an immersive play environment ideally suited to encourage pretend play and social skills.  For more information, see Family Autism Events.

Sandra Bolton

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