Playing with others: why it’s important for autistic children
Autistic children enjoy play and learn through play, just as typically developing children do.
Through playing with others, your child can learn and practise new social skills and abilities. These skills are important for your child’s overall development. They include sharing things, taking turns, communicating with others, imagining what other people are thinking and feeling, and so on.
Playing with others can also lay the foundation for early friendships. And friendships are important for children’s confidence, self-worth and sense of belonging.
Playing with you is key to your child’s development too. When you play with your child, you help your child develop skills, including play skills. And playing with your child is also one of the best ways to tune in to your child and build your relationship.
Stages of social play
The ability to play with others, or social play, develops in stages:
- playing alone
- playing alongside others
- playing and sharing with others
- playing cooperatively with others.
You can help your autistic child by noticing which stage of social play your child is at and by giving your child opportunities, support and encouragement to progress to the next stage.
While children are developing their ability to play with others, they’re likely to still want to spend time playing by themselves. It’s OK if your child wants to play alone some of the time.
In this stage of social play, children play alone and independently. They don’t try to get close to other children, and they don’t pay attention to what others are doing.
You can encourage autistic child’s solitary play skills by starting with activities that have a clear goal or end point. Keep the play activity short to start with, so your child can finish it quickly and feel successful.
Simple jigsaw puzzles can be good for this stage of play.
Playing alongside others
Children at this stage of play start to play alongside other children. They might use the same toys as the children around them.
You can promote play in this stage by encouraging your autistic child to play at an activity on their own but alongside other children. You can encourage your child to copy the other children’s play while your child is playing on their own.
Playing with toy trains or cars can be good for this stage of play.
Playing and sharing with others
In this stage of play, children interact with other children. They give, take and share play materials.
You can help your autistic child develop their ability to play and share with others by encouraging them to swap things while still playing on their own. For example, if your child is cycling or scooting with other children, you could encourage them to swap bikes, trikes or scooters.
Playing cooperatively with others
Playing cooperatively with others includes playing games with rules, making up rules, and working together on something, like building a cubbyhouse or making a sandcastle.
Many of the social rules of cooperative play can be difficult for autistic children to understand and put into action. You can help your child by using clear instructions to simplify the rules of games. For example, ‘First you hide somewhere in the house. Then Sam counts to 10. Then Sam comes to find you. When Sam finds you, it’s your turn to count while Sam hides’.
You can use autistic children’s thinking and learning strengths when you’re helping them with social play. For example, if your child is a visual learner, you could take pictures of different steps in a game or activity. Or your child might prefer to learn the rules of a game using a social story. Making games more visual can also help too. For example, the person who’s ‘it’ could wear a special hat.
Helping autistic children learn about and enjoy playing with others
Here are some other ideas to get your child interacting and playing with others:
- Choose simple games like peekaboo, pat-a-cake, ring-o-rosies, snap and memory. They’re all social games that promote sharing and taking turns, but they’re also structured with clear end points.
- Use playdates or visits with friends or family whose children are around the same age as your child. You could also ask your child’s siblings or cousins to help with showing your child how to play games, take turns and so on.
- Teach your child how to join in. Again, siblings, cousins and friends might be able to show your child how it’s done. For example, you child could say ‘Hello, can I play with you?’, or ‘Do you want to play with the trains?’
- If your child finds it hard to join in with others, watch carefully to work out why. Does your child need help with some of their play or other skills? You could speak to your child’s school, preschool or early intervention teacher if you’re not sure.
Using social play to help autistic children build other skills
Playing with others involves many different kinds of skills, so it’s a great chance for your child to practise these skills. Here are some ways you can help with this:
- Talk about what’s going on. This can help your child learn words. For example, if you’re playing a pretend game like a tea party, name the objects, like cup, spoon and plate.
- Expand on what your child says. This can help your child learn to build longer sentences. If your child is using single words, you could try using two words. If your child is using three-word sentences, you can use four words, and so on.
- Help your child respond appropriately to challenging situations that come up in social play. For example, you could use a tea party game to help your child practise sharing food and taking turns to pour drinks with the jug.