By Raising Children Network
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Toddler playing with jigsaw and cars credit 8213profoto
Structured play can be a good way for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to learn play skills such as sharing, taking turns and being with other children.

How autism spectrum disorder can affect play

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) enjoy playing, but they can find some types of play difficult.

It’s common for them to have very limited play, play with only a few toys, or play in a repetitive way. For example, your child might like spinning the wheels on a car and watching the wheels rotate, or might do 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 copy simple actions, explore the environment, share objects and attention with others, respond to others and take turns.

How structured play can help children with autism spectrum disorder

Structured play is when a grown-up provides resources, starts play or joins in with children’s play to offer some direction or guidelines. Free play is when your child does her own thing.

Both are both important for your child’s development, but structured play activities are particularly useful for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) learning early play skills such as sharing, taking turns and interacting with other children.

This is because a structured play activity usually gives a child clear guidelines about what to do and when. It also usually has a clear end point. This reduces the number of options that can come up in a play scenario, which can sometimes be overwhelming for children with ASD. A clear structure can also help your child understand the steps, skills, activities or ideas that are needed to get to the end goal of the game.

All of this creates a lower-stress environment where your child can practise the skills he needs both to play and interact successfully with other children.

Once your child has learned the steps, over time she might be able to start and finish the activity without support.

How to structure a play activity for children with autism spectrum disorder

The first step is choosing an appropriate play activity. Best for structured play are activities that have a clear goal and ending, such as jigsaws, puzzle books, song and action DVDs, picture lotto and matching games.

Next, you could try creating a visual schedule:

  1. Represent each step of the activity with visual cues – objects, pictures or words – attached to a board.
  2. Pull off each cue during the activity as your child progresses, so that you clearly show what the next stage of the activity is.
  3. Gradually reduce your support until your child can use the schedule and complete the activity on his own.

To start with, your child might not find the activity or its end result fun by itself. You might need to add something else to help your child learn that this type of play can be fun. For example, if your child loves your tickles, you can tickle her after each stage of the activity is finished, and then have a big tickle session at the end of the whole activity.

This extra reinforcement will help your child to have a positive experience of the structured play activity while he’s still learning play skills.

Top tips for structured play

  • Use your child’s interests. For example, if your child loves Thomas the Tank Engine, start by using Thomas-themed jigsaws, puzzles or colouring books.
  • Choose activities that your child can do.
  • Use your child’s strengths. For example, if your child responds well to visual cues, you could try a very visual activity such as sorting coloured blocks.
  • Talk only as much as you need to.
  • Keep playtime short.
  • Redirect inappropriate play. For example, if your child is banging blocks together, you could prompt her to stack them, or redirect her to an activity that involves banging.
  • Think about what stage your child is at and try moving play onto the next stage. For example, if he’s banging blocks, introduce some turn-taking.
  • Have fun!

Developing play

As your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) becomes more able to complete structured play activities on her own, you can begin to expand how long you play and the number of activities you do with your child. For example, once your child can complete a few activities, try to set up a few different play stations around the house.

This way, your child can practise moving between activities and focusing on different things without having you there all the time.

  • Last updated or reviewed 21-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Caroline de Fina, Faculty of Education, Monash University.