Teaching Play Skills to Children with ASD

Pretend play can often be very difficult for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because it directly impacts their ability to develop and understand social skills along with communication skills. Play skills are necessary for children to establish and create meaningful relationships with peers and understand the world around them. This blog will help provide some information to help engage your child with ASD while learning new foundational and essential play skills.

Where do I start?

Just like every child is different, every child with autism is different. It is important to understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Before introducing new unfamiliar activities with your child, make sure your child is at a ready-to-learn and regulated state. This means your child is demonstrating a calm body and is ready to play. It is important to reinforce eye contact and joint attention while playing with your child to help increase their engagement skills. Your child’s skill level, attention span, and interests will determine and help guide you in the right direction to begin introducing new unfamiliar play. Begin where your child is at and remember to slowly build on their current level of understanding and skill. If your child resists the new play, begin new play schemes with some of your child’s favorite games or toys. Remember, all children learn by repetition and benefit from having a model or demonstration with how to the use objects appropriately.

Sensory Play

Sensory activities include activities that stimulate our senses, whether in a positive way or a negative way using all our senses: taste, sound, visual, tactile, and smell. These different textures, colors, smells, taste, and experiences impact the way you experience the world around you. Sensory-based activities help children become engaged and focus on the activity presented. These activities can improve attention span, increase flexibility and exposure to new items, and help self-regulation. Please use caution when implementing new sensory items with your child and notice for any aversive or negative reactions.

  • Music is a great way to engage any child! Fingerplays (e.g. “Wheels on the bus”) and dancing improve your child’s attention span, imitation skills, and gross-motor coordination.
  • Water, whether it’s outside when weather appropriate or in the bathtub all year round.
  • Play-Doh (roll, squish, animal shapes)
  • Waterbeads (fill and dump, have animals swim)
  • Sand

Functional Play

Functional play is the child’s ability to use objects as they are intended and expected (e.g. block to build). Use cups to fill up and dump the water/waterbeads in the bathtub or a car to drive across the sand. Use the blocks to build a tower and crash them. Provide hands-on assistance and a demonstration if your child does not use the object functionally.

Pretend Play

Pretend play or symbolic play is when a child uses a realistic item or non-realistic item as something else (i.e. using play food or a spoon as a toothbrush). Use animals in the bathtub to walk across the tub and use the sounds associated with each animal. Once your child has mastered the play imitation skills, expand upon this play and encourage your child to have the animals go down the slide in the bathtub. Use their favorite stuffed animal during meal times and encourage your child to “feed” their animal. Continue the child’s bedtime routine with their favorite animal, while you demonstrate and explain what you are doing with your child and their animal.

Questions or concerns?

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s play skills, please contact us at info@playworkschicago.com or 773-332-9439.

Kelly Scafidi, MSW, LCSW, DT
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Developmental Therapist

Reference: The Australian Parenting Website (2017). Play and children with autism spectrum disorder.

Retrieved from: raisingchildren.net.au/autism/school-play-work/play-learning/play-asd.

Photo Credit: rawpixel via Unsplash.com

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