Playing is essential to child development because young kids learn through play. In addition, it helps build fine and gross motor skills, cognitive skills, communication and social skills, language, as well as thinking and problem-solving skills. Typically, children use play to try on different personalities and characters—and to forge friendships.
Read More: How to Help Autistic Children Make Friends.
However, children with autism spectrum disorders play differently—and play can be very limited. They primarily play alone, and it’s often repetitive with no goal in mind. If left alone, children with autism cannot explore their abilities and interests.
Play therapy is often a tool for helping children with autism become themselves. Under the right circumstances, it can also be a tool for helping parents relate more effectively to their offspring.
This article explores this aspect—and more!
What Is Play?
When you think of play, toys are probably the first thing that comes to mind. When a child enters a room full of toys, they will go from one to the other without knowing what to do with them. That’s why an adult needs to be present and show them how to use the toys in order to share this knowledge later.
Sometimes, children find this interaction more rewarding than the toy itself. That’s why play is all about interaction, which needs to be structured to support communication and learning. Play is also important for developing the ability to explore the world around them, copy others, take turns, share things, imagine other people’s feelings and thoughts, etc.
Furthermore, play therapy has been conceived as a tool for psychotherapy for young people coping with anxiety, mental illness, and trauma. During play, they act out their feelings and find healthier coping mechanisms. However, this type of play therapy is not used on children with autism spectrum disorders. It looks more like Floortime therapy, a strategy that builds on the autistic child’s own interests to develop relationships and communication skills.
Type of Play
Children with autism spectrum disorders enjoy play like any other child and develop like typical children. There are six main types of play:
Exploratory play happens when children explore new objects and toys rather than play with them. Through this type of play, kids learn about their world by exploring different textures, shapes, colors, and sizes.
This happens when children play with toys that need an action to get the result, like pressing a button to turn on the TV. Cause-and-effect play teaches children that their actions have effects and gives them a sense of control.
It’s the perfect chance for children to learn and copy what you’re doing, then take turns while asking you for help.
This is the stage where children learn to use toys like they were designed. Toy play can help children develop thinking, problem-solving, and creativity skills. However, this depends on what toys your child likes.
You can help your autistic child play with toys by doing the following:
- Sit in front of your child, so they can look at you and see what you are doing.
- Offer two or three toys that your child likes. This will give the child control over their choice without feeling overwhelmed.
- Let your child take control of the play session—and encourage them to play if they don’t copy you. You can also show them videos of other children playing, so they know what to do.
- Use praise and positive feedback to reward your child for good behavior.
This is the part where children build or make things. Usually, constructive play involves working towards a goal or product, such as drawing a picture. Constructive play helps children develop motor skills, practice thinking, cognitive development, and problem-solving skills. But most of all, it helps them be creative.
Physical play refers to rough-and-tumble play, which gives the child whole-body exercise and helps develop gross motor skills. It also allows the child to play with their environment and interact with other children.
This is where the child starts to use his imagination to play, such as pretending to drive a car or having tea time with teddy bears. Pretend play helps kids develop language, communication, and social skills, which helps form relationships and understand what other people are feeling.
What Are the Benefits of Play?
Play has many benefits, including:
- Decreased frustration
- Increased motivation
- Developed fine motor skills
- Regulated vestibular system
- Decreased meltdown frequency
- Decreased boredom
- Increased communication skills
- Increased exercise
- Increased willingness to try new activities
How Does Autism Affect Play?
Children with autism spectrum don’t play typical childhood games or “like other kids.” That’s why it’s challenging to find playdates or activities that the child can enjoy with others; sometimes, it’s even challenging for parents to play with their own child.
Autism spectrum disorder affects communication and social skills. That’s why social interactions are challenging. Autistic children are unwilling to allow others to share experiences and do not understand the thoughts and feelings of those around them. Furthermore, they don’t understand nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures.
There are also issues with imagination because the autistic child doesn’t know how to pretend, so play often leads to repetitive actions that are only meaningful to the child. As a result, children lose the development of specific skills such as:
- Taking turns
- Copying simple actions
- Responding to others
- Exploring the environment
- Sharing objects
Tips for Improving Play
In this section, we’ll discuss some of the intervention strategies you can use to help autistic children get the most out of play:
- Encourage play in different environments. If your child only plays at home with a certain item, you can take that item to a friend’s house. Rewarding the child for playing in different people’s houses is essential.
- Watch your child’s interests. No matter how ordinary an activity is, watch your child throughout the day and see when they show interest in an activity. These times are perfect for learning.
- Use play to teach everyday skills. Teach your child how to dress by dressing a doll, for example.
- Follow your child’s lead. Join in your child’s play rather than trying to guide it. Be careful of signs that point to your child’s bored or losing interest; knowing when to stop is essential.
- Work with your child’s strengths.
Toys You Can Use for Engagement
There are some toys you can use to engage your child in play, such as:
- Rainbow Balloons (handled under supervision)
- Crayon Blowing Bubbles
- Jack-in-the-Box Rabbit
- Building Blocks
- Fidget Toys
- Electronic Pet Dog
- Kinetic Sand
Discover more toys in this article: 10 Best Sensory Toys for Children with Autism.