The Importance of Play for Autistic Children
Play is an important part of a child’s development. It builds fine and gross motor skills, social skills, communication skills, language, thinking and problem solving skills. In autistic children, play can be very limited. For example, a child may want to play alone, engage in repetitive play like lining up toys or moving from them from point A to point B and then back again, or play with the same thing over and over. Children can learn play skills with guidance and by structuring play. Let’s explore the aspect of play a little deeper.
How does ASD affect play?
ASD affects both social and communication skills. Social interactions are challenging because there is an unwillingness to allow others to share experiences and a lack of understanding of thoughts and feelings of others. Understanding nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures is difficult. There are problems with imagination. Not knowing how to pretend can lead to repetitive actions that are only meaningful to the child.
Because of the difficulties, the development of these important play skills may be affected:
- copying simple actions
- exploring the environment
- sharing objects and attention with others
- responding to others
- taking turns
What is play?
When most people think of play, they think of using toys. If a typical young child enters a room filled with unfamiliar toys, he’ll bounce from one thing to another and not know what to do with the them. Adult interaction is needed for guidance. A child needs to be shown and helped so that he can later share his newly acquired knowledge and engage with other children. Children tend to find the interaction with an adult more rewarding than the toy itself. The adult is teaching the child how to react which can then be generalized to a new type of familiar toy.
Play is really about interaction. Initially, that interaction will need to be structured to support communication and learning. Toys are the props to foster interaction through play. Toys don’t need to be formal either – they can be a box, blanket, feather, pillow etc.
Where do I start?
The first thing to start with is developing joint attention. Joint attention means both the adult and the child are fixed on the same thing at the same time, experiencing the same reaction and awareness that both people are involved. This process takes time to develop in ASD. Being with creating a sense of shared space – sharing attention, emotion and understanding.
Young autistic children tend to avoid sharing space, finding it uncomfortable. It’s important for parents to understand the joint play can cause feelings of anxiety and to not take avoidance personally. Try to start with sharing space, even if just for a few seconds, to show that it can be fun.
Try making a few informal notes when observing your child. Record when are they most accessible and receptive – maybe during a bath, when you sing, relaxed in bed, eating something they love, or engaged in some physical activity. These are the moments to show that communication means something.
Some ideas to try:
- Encourage your child to touch you and come up with an appealing response. When our daughter was 2 years old, she loved to stick her foot up to my husband’s nose. He would smell it, say “pew” and pretend to pass out. She would laugh with delight and do this game for several minutes.
- When you have a game he enjoys, stop and take a pause. Pausing creates the opportunity for your child to gesture or use words to continue.
- Play peek-a-boo games. This is a tried and true activity that most children love and will engage in. Create pauses to increase anticipation or encourages your child to ask for more.
- Making silly faces. Cover your face with your hands and then reveal different expressions.
- Dance! Dancing was probably the most motivating way for my son to engage, starting when he was a toddler. He would move with me, touch my hands, follow simple steps, and was very interactive. Today at the age of 23, he still loves to dance and sing.
- Blowing raspberries on the palms of hands or stomach. This was another favorite activity for my son and one that he would initiate and want to keep going.
What are some simple things I can use for engagement?
There are many simple items you can use to engage a child like:
Balloons – Bounce them around or blow them up and deflate them. (Use under supervision only)
Bubbles – There are so many types available – different wands, bubble machines. This is a great activity to wait for a child to ask/gesture for more bubbles. My daughter used to sign “more” before she could speak to keep bubble blowing going.
Cause and Effect Toys – a jack-in-the-box, press a button and something happens. These types of toys also teach children that their actions have effects and gives them a sense of control in their play.
Blocks– Playing with blocks encourages turn taking. Build a tower with each person adding a block until it falls down. The parent can build a tower and the child knocks it down. My son loved this one!
Simple Puzzles – Puzzles are also great for turn taking. Chunky puzzles with knobs on the top can make handling pieces easier. Puzzles also help with problem solving skills.
Books – Books with interactive sounds, pop-up books, books with textures, or books with things to do like pull a tab or spin a wheel are all very engaging.
Where can I find ideas for play?
As adults, we often forget how to play or how to make play more structured and engaging for a child with autism. There are many great resources out there. Here are a few to access:
To learn more about play and how to teach play skills, scroll down to the bottom of this post to see related books and blogs for further reading. Playing is an important part of a child’s healthy development. Increasing your knowledge of how to play will help your interactions with your child to be more rewarding for the both of you.
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