We all play for a variety of reasons – learning, exercise, stimulation, and entertainment – and it’s very much the same for autistic children. They’re learning and exploring the world, testing out ideas and having a good time – but it’s just not always in the way that we experience play.
How autism spectrum disorder can affect play:
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) enjoy playing, they can find some types of play difficult. It’s common for them to have very limited play – play with only a few toys or play in a repetitive way. Because ASD affects the development of social and communication skills, it can also affect the development of important skills needed for play – such as the ability to copy simple actions, explore the environment, share objects and attention with others, respond to others or to understand taking turns.
Young ASD children engage in five main types of play, which develop in stages.
Stage 1: Exploratory play
This is when children explore objects and toys, rather than playing with them – for example, feeling a teddy bear, tasting a block or touching a doll’s hands. At this stage of play, children are learning about their world through different shapes, colours, sizes and textures.
Stage 2: Cause-and-effect play
This is when children play with toys that need an action to produce the desired result – for example, pressing a button to play music, or turning a tap to let water flow. This type of play teaches children that their actions have effects and gives them a sense of control in their play.
Praising your child with ASD when he does the right action will encourage him to keep doing it. It will also encourage him to interact with other toys in a cause-and-effect way as well.
Stage 3: Toy play (or ‘functional’ play)
This 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.
The following steps will help if this is an area of challenge for your child with ASD.
- Sit in front of your child so they can look at you, communicate with you, and see what you’re doing. Offer two or three toys your child enjoys. This gives your child a choice without overwhelming them.
- Join in with what your child is doing, rather than trying to guide them to play. You can start by copying what your child is doing, then add to the activity. 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’.
- Reward your child. Use positive feedback such as, ‘You’ve built a big tower. Good job!’
- Knowing when to stop or change is also important, so look out for signs of boredom or lack of interest.
- The ability to play with toys – and to play with you – is an important stepping-stone towards the types and stages of play described below.
Stage 4: Physical play
This is rough-and-tumble play, running around, and other physical play that provides whole-body exercise and teaches your child gross motor skills. Physical play gives all children the experience of interacting with other people and objects in their surroundings.
Stage 5: Pretend play
This is when children make believe or pretend and use their imaginations during play. Pretend play happens later in development (usually around two years of age in typically developing children) and is the most complex form of play. Pretend play is most important for developing the skills needed for social relationships, language and communication. This type of play is often delayed in children with ASD, but many children with ASD can and do eventually develop pretend play. There are lots of simple, everyday pretend actions your child can learn to use in pretend play, such as driving a car, riding a horse or banging a drum.
What about children who ‘don’t play at all’?
A lack of interest with toys is often one of the first things people notice about the play behavior of autistic children, yet it isn’t always a good measure of the level of play skill development. That’s because we make some assumptions when describing and defining what appropriate play looks like.
We have preconceived ideas about toys. Any object that the child decides to play with is a toy.
We also assume we know what is fun. What if they don’t yet have the level of cognitive or physical skill to operate them?
What if these children are more creative and prefer to play with spoons, bowls, and vessels from the kitchen?
We need to discover what is fun for each child.
So before we jump to conclude that a kid isn’t interested in play, we really need to think about the kinds of things that might be affecting their ability to do that:
Can they identify which objects are toys?
- Is the toy fun for them?
- Is the toy comfortable for them to use?
- Do they know how to use the toy?
- Can they physically operate the toy?
- Do they know when it’s time to play?
- Do they know where to play?
- Are they able to physically access something to play with?
- Are they able to choose something to play with?
- Are they able to independently transition to and start a play activity?
- Are they able to communicate when they need help?
Self-esteem in children with ASD:
Many children with ASD have unique special interests. You should see these as strengths and use them to improve your child’s learning, social skills and self-esteem.
You can also use your child’s special interest to urge and draw him to form new friends.
Building on your child’s strengths:
Here are some tips to help you as a parent or care-giver with enhancing your child’s personal strengths, interests and talents.
Personalized strengths book – This should be a unique and personal book about your child. It could include:
- What your child likes to do
- What your child is good at
- What makes your child happy
- Who your child likes to spend time with
- What he does with that person
- Does he have an imaginary friend
- What your child is currently learning
- What your child wants to be when he grows up
This will help monitor your ASD child’s needs as a caregiver, on what aspects of your child’s interests and self-esteem needs to be emphasised and followed through.