Written by Arthur Grant from MuddySmiles.com
The act of play is developmentally important for children. Interacting with their toys, their world, and their peers is how kids begin to develop critical thinking, empathy, motor skills, and the ability to communicate effectively. For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the development of play skills may happen differently, and may follow a different timetable.
Children with ASD may play in ways that seem limited or repetitive to onlookers, and may struggle with basic aspects of play including mirroring others, exploring new environments, sharing, being responsive to others, and the use of empathy and patience. Parents and educators have successfully used play interventions to help teach play skills to children with developmental differences.
Play skills describe the varied and developmentally influential ways that children naturally tend to play. No two children with ASD are exactly alike — some may struggle with certain play skills while excelling at others, while another child may seem entirely disinterested. Understanding how play skills can be facilitated for kids with ASD can go a long way in aiding parents in their guidance.
Nurturing Play Skills in Children with ASD
Cause and Effect
During cause and effect play, children see that their actions cause reactions. These experiences teach critical thinking, hand-eye coordination, a sense of control, and the ability to mimic sequences.
Play Idea: Sitting across from your child, use a wind-up toy, demonstrating how it works(including a reaction of surprise). After a few rounds, pass the toy to your child for a try.
Explorative play is a time when children use their senses, perception, and logic to form memories and concepts about their experiences. It helps to boost confidence and encourage decision-making.
Play Idea: A busy board offers plentiful safe opportunities to explore sounds, textures, colours, and other sensory features. Sit with your child, experiencing the board together and demonstrating how each function works as they explore.
When kids engage in hands-on play, they’re learning about spatial reasoning, shapes, sizes, textures, and colours. This can boost their ability to identify, categorise, and sort objects, which is a part of critical thinking. Hands-on play is also linked to motor skill development.
Play Idea: A set of blocks is a versatile teaching tool for hands-on play — prompt your child to sort blocks by sizes, shapes, and colours, starting with concepts they know and gradually introducing new ideas.
Imaginative play is an important part of social development and language acquisition. It often includes telling stories, taking on roles, and conceptualising about the experiences of others. Children with ASD may struggle with this play skill more than others.
Play Idea: To encourage your child to imagine, use a favourite toy or doll to tell a story about an experience they can relate to. Ask your child questions about what they think the toy might be feeling or thinking to prompt them to think creatively. Start with very simple questions, increasing in depth when skills improve.
Physically Active Play
Staying physically active is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. For children, it’s also a crucial part of refining motor skills and developing coordination, areas where some children with ASD are limited.
Play Idea: Balance toys like safe rubber “stepping stones” with non-slip bottoms can help children to improve their proprioception and gross motor skills. Make sure to choose a safe area for play, and create a course that’s germane to their skill level.
The use of blocks and building sets helps kids to learn critical thinking, spatial reasoning, and hand-eye coordination. This is an area where some children with ASD may excel or find particular enjoyment, though others may need a bit of help getting started.
Play Idea: Building a simple stacking tower with blocks is an excellent starting point. Demonstrate careful stacking to your child, giving them a chance to recreate what you’ve built. Towers can become more complex as skills improve.
Time spent outside is part of a healthy lifestyle, but for some children with ASD, sensory sensitivity is something that must be considered. It can be a great place for water play and other gradual experiences with sensory engagement with low risk of mess.
Play Idea: A sprinkler in the shade allows your child to enjoy some outdoor water play without feeling overwhelmed. They can control their level of engagement, becoming more comfortable at their own pace. Don’t skip the sunblock!
When kids engage their senses during play, they’re developing their critical thinking and cause and effect skills. Since children with ASD are prone to sensory sensitivities, sensory play that takes place in a controlled environment can be helpful in teaching this skill.
Play Idea: A sensory table that’s filled with safe, soothing textures, colours, objects, and toys to explore helps kids to enjoy sensory play at their own pace. Make sure to supervise at all times, especially if the table includes small objects which could be placed in the mouth.
Social Play Skills
For many children with ASD, social interaction can be the toughest play skill to master. Depending on their abilities, your child may engage in solo play (all on their own), side by side play, low-contact sharing, or high-contact direct play.
Every child will approach social play with a different level of comfort. Block sets are a great toy for gradually increasing a child’s level of social play, as they’re easy to share but can be used with varying degrees of mutual cooperation.
Another great strategy for teaching social behaviour is the use of social stories. These are highly visual, very short stories walking a child with ASD through a typical social interaction. These can be created by parents and used to coach a child before or during a difficult interaction, but may also be used as a follow-up review if an interaction doesn’t go as planned.
A few tips for parents:
Play interventions are often more effective when you organically join your child in an activity of their choosing rather than directing them
Allow your child to guide the moment, engaging and exploring in their own way, and be receptive when they indicate it’s time to switch activities or wrap up
Attempt play interventions in a calm and open state of mind, without projecting frustration; know when to walk away, as doing so is more effective than a negative interaction
Though they may take time, consistently and patiently applying play skill interventions in your child’s daily activities may help them to reach new milestones. Don’t be afraid to consult with your child’s doctors and teachers about other play skill interventions they may recommend.