Play: why it’s important for autistic children
Autistic children enjoy and learn through play, just as typically developing children do.
There are six main types of play, which develop in stages:
- exploratory play
- cause-and-effect play
- toy play
- constructive play
- physical play
- pretend play.
By helping your child’s play develop, you also help your child learn and practise new skills and abilities. These skills are important for your child’s overall development. They include the ability to explore the environment, copy others, share things, take turns, imagine what other people are thinking and feeling, communicate, and more.
You can help your autistic child learn how to play and develop their skills just by playing together. When you play together, you can model types of play as well as skills for your child. Playing with your child is also a great way to tune in to your child and build your relationship.
Exploratory play is when children explore objects and toys, rather than playing with them – for example, feeling a teddy bear, mouthing a block or looking at a doll’s hands.
Through this type of play, children learn about their world by exploring different shapes, colours, sizes and textures.
To help your autistic child with this type of play, you can encourage your child to explore objects around them as part of everyday activities. For example, when your child is having a bath, you could encourage your child to splash water, rub soap between their fingers, pour water from a cup and so on.
Cause-and-effect play is when children play with toys that need an action to get a result – for example, pressing a button to play music.
This type of play teaches children that their actions have effects and gives them a sense of control in their play. It can be a chance for your child to learn to copy what you’re doing, take turns and ask you for help.
To help your autistic child with this type of play, you could take turns pressing a button to make something pop up, then take turns pushing it back down again.
Toy play is learning how to play with and use toys in the way they were designed – for example, pushing a toy car, bringing a toy phone to the ear, or throwing a ball.
Depending on what toys your child likes, toy play can help your child develop thinking, problem-solving and creative skills as they figure out what to do with their toys. And if you play with your child, your child gets to work on copying, taking turns, sharing things and so on.
Here’s how to help your autistic child with toy play:
- Sit in front of your child so your child can look at you, communicate with you, and see what you’re doing. This also makes it easier to engage your child in play.
- Offer two or three toys your child enjoys. This gives your child a choice, but doesn’t overwhelm your child.
- Let your child lead the play. 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’. Or if your child likes opening and closing doors on toys, start with this and then add toy figures walking in the doors.
- Encourage your child to play if your child doesn’t copy you. You could say, ‘Your turn to drive the car’. Take your child’s hand and place it on the car, then move the car across the floor together.
- Reward your child. Use praise and positive feedback like ‘You made that car go really fast. Good job!’
- Show your child short videos of people playing with toys. This can give your child ideas about what to do.
Constructive play is when children build or make things. It involves working towards a goal or product – for example, completing a jigsaw puzzle, making a tower out of blocks, or drawing a picture.
This type of play can help children develop motor skills, practise thinking and problem-solving skills, and enjoy being creative.
You can encourage your autistic child’s constructive play by showing your child what to do. For example, you could try building a tower with blocks to show your child how to do it, or you could use pictures or photographs that show how to build a tower.
Physical play is rough-and-tumble play, running around and so on.
This type of play gives your child whole-body exercise and helps them develop gross motor skills. It can also be a chance for your child to explore their environment and interact with other people.
You can find information about how to encourage this type of play in our articles on outdoor play, movement for toddlers, movement for preschoolers and movement for school-age children.
Pretend play is when children use their imaginations during play. Examples of this type of play include pretending to feed a teddy bear, dressing up like a superhero, pretending to be driving a car, or pretending the couch is a sailing boat.
Pretend play helps children develop the skills they need for social relationships, language and communication. These include understanding what other people are thinking and feeling.
Here are some ways to help your autistic child with pretend play:
- Model some simple, everyday pretend actions that your child can use in pretend play, like driving a car, riding a horse or banging a drum.
- Break pretend play activity into steps. You can use written or picture instructions to help your child understand what to do. You might want to make it funny. For example, try using a hair brush instead of a spoon to feed a teddy bear.
- Encourage role-play by getting your child and others to act out a favourite story. Give the children costumes and suggest changes to the characters’ voices and gestures.
Pretend play happens later in development. It’s the most sophisticated form of play.
Tips for making the most of play for autistic children
Here are some tips to help you and your child get the most out of play:
- Encourage play in different environments. For example, if your child likes playing with Lego at home, encourage your child to play with Lego at a friend’s house. Reward your child for playing and using their skills in different places and with different people.
- Watch your child throughout the day and look for the times when your child shows interest in an activity, however ordinary it might seem to you. These are the perfect times to teach and learn.
- Use play to help your child develop everyday skills. For example, dressing a doll or changing in and out of dress-ups can help your child learn to dress themselves.
- Follow your child’s lead with play. Join in with your child’s play, rather than trying to guide it. And watch for signs that your child is getting bored or losing interest – knowing when to stop or change is important.
- Work with your child’s thinking and learning strengths. For example, if your child is a visual learner, you can work with this strength by using pictures of the different steps in a game or activity.