Encouraging Children with Autism to Play

Children with autism do not follow a typical pattern when they play. Because many children with autism become obsessed with objects in nontypical ways and do not socialize easily, their play is not as socially interactive as that of their peers. In addition, many children with autism are often repetitive in their movements, have communication issues, and are not interested in the world around them, which makes it challenging to encourage children with autism to play with others. Although children with autism may manipulate objects or engage in some form of experimental play, it is usually very different from that of their peers.

While children with autism tend to be somewhat involved with materials and objects that involve the senses, they often show a marked preference for only one type of play material. For example, Sam will build a road for his cars, but he only uses square blocks and he only plays with red cars. Also, since children with autism are usually very literal,  they do not always understand or show any desire to participate in symbolic or pretend play. Make-believe and imaginative play, especially if it involves role play or interaction with others, is very uncommon.

It is very difficult for children with autism to understand the social relationships involved in playing successfully with others. Even if they are interested in such interactions, most children with autism do not know how to engage themselves in a play activity with someone else. For this reason, they become even more socially isolated. While their peers are learning to build relationships in play groups and play activities, children with autism are often left sitting alone, absorbed in a favorite toy. Jerome, for example, enjoys making a collage out of bits of fabric, string, and colored paper. However, if you ask him to make a kite with a peer, he turns his back on you and walks away.

Ideas for Encouraging Your Child to Play

When trying to encourage your child, keep the following in mind:

  • Focus on the interests of the child.
  • Make interactions with others as natural as possible.
  • Recognize that your child may have difficulty adjusting to new play situations and new play materials.
  • Explain activities that involve more than one step, and provide picture cues to help your child know what to do next.
  • Allow your child to leave a play activity if it becomes too overwhelming.
  • Honor your child's need to play alone; he may not be ready to play with other children.
  • Avoid upsetting your child; let him know ahead of time that it will soon be time to stop playing, so that he has time to accept that there will be a change.

General Suggestions for Teaching Play

Use the following suggestions  to help your child learn to play:

  • Introduce one new toy or activity at a time. Too much change can be overwhelming.
  • If you are teaching your child to do something for the first time, break it down into a few simple steps.
  • Start off with very short periods of structured play. Then, make the time longer as your child learns to tolerate the activity.
  • Make sure every play activity is fun and rewarding for your child. Remember, the main reason children play is because it is fun!



For more suggestions, activities, tips, and knowledge about children on the Autism Spectrum, check out My Child Has Autism: What Parents Need to Know by Clarissa Willis, PhD., available in paperback format.

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