Play in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can look very different compared to how their peers play. In some cases, these children may not play at all.
To help kids with autism learn to play, it helps to know the barriers that can affect play skills. For example, some children with autism may have limited interests. They may only play with one or two toys, doing the same action over and over, or only play with parts of toys. They also may:
- Not know how to play with toys
- Be unable to learn just by watching others because it’s hard for them to imitate
- Not have the foundational skills play requires, like issues with coordination
It’s important to help kids with autism improve their play skills, because play is a foundation for learning. During playtime, try working on:
- Foundational learning skills—like attention and flexibility
- Cognitive skills—like problem-solving
- Communication skills—like practicing new words
- Social skills—like taking turns, sharing and talking to peers
- Fine motor skills—like self-feeding and drawing
- Gross motor skills—like running and jumping
Playtime is also a great opportunity to encourage more parent-child interaction. When kids with autism play with their parents, it can set the stage for them to play with their peers in the future. Parents play an important role in a child’s development of all skills, and playtime is a chance to give your child attention and validation. You can also pair yourself with fun, enjoyable activities and create opportunities for learning in a natural environment.
To promote play in your little one:
- Get on her level. Position yourself on the floor or at eye level to promote interaction and make it more likely that your child is aware of your presence.
- Copy her actions when appropriate. Imitating your child’s actions can show your approval and make it more likely that she will imitate you or be aware of your actions in the future.
- Make it fun. Being silly and modeling fun things to do with toys based on your child’s interests can increase your child’s interest in toys and help teach play.
- Expand interests by introducing new toys or games or incorporate preferred items into play activities.
- Work on foundational skills such as imitation and matching that may help with play.
Play should be fun for both you and your child. If you need more ideas, read about building interest in toys and games.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.