When a child is diagnosed with autism, it can be easy to dive into the treatment plan and forget about play. However, research proves when it comes to play and autism, play is just as important as structured learning! Play is an essential aspect of a child’s development because it helps build fine and gross motor skills, communication skills, language, imagination, social skills, and problem-solving skills.
However, for autistic children, play can also be stressful and limiting. You may notice that your child prefers to play alone, or they engage in repetitive play such as only building with green Legos, lining up the toys, or doing the same thing over and over. With guidance and structuring play to include engagement, it is possible to have positive moments for all involved.
Children’s play creates an environment for positive reinforcement. A simple pause can create a teachable moment. Through observation, you can see where your child is most engaged and find a way to include yourself in their fun. Although it may feel unnatural to remind the child that you are physically there, do so. Make a gentle nudge to your presence through praise, signing, or touch. Play with them while they are engaged in their favorite activities, so they begin to associate having fun with sharing an experience with another.
Because autism affects both communication and social skills, play can be challenging. Social interactions can be complex because there is an unwillingness to share experiences with others. Additionally, there may be a complete lack of understanding of the thoughts and feelings of others, both known and unknown. A therapist will understand nonverbal cues, but playmates will not. Facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice are all essential and, in some cases, the only communication the child has.
There may also be limitations when considering imagination. The child may only build the house exactly as depicted by the picture or the directions. Varying the house in any way inconsistent with the image or instructions could lead to distress or even a meltdown. In this case, focusing on a play activity that lends itself to curiosity would benefit the child.
Developmental Milestones to Look for During Play
- Mimicking elementary actions
- Exploring the environment
- Sharing objects and engaging with others
- Responding when called
By becoming familiar with play development, you can help your child learn new abilities and practice skills. These skills are essential for your child’s overall development. If your child is not engaging in any of these types of play behaviors, it may be beneficial to get autism testing and diagnosis services. Early intervention, such as ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy, can be critical in this scenario.
What Is Play?
Often when people think about play, they imagine using toys. If a neurotypical young child enters a room filled with toys he doesn’t recognize, the child will go from one thing to another without knowing what to do with any of them. In this case, adult interaction is required for instruction on what to do. The child needs to learn before sharing this new skill with other children. Commonly, the exchange with the adult is more rewarding than the toy itself. The adult teaches the child how to respond to a new stimulus while fostering an interaction.
Play is ultimately about engagement and interaction. Toys are helpful props to fostering exchange through play, but they are not required. Toys can be inexpensive or informal, such as shaving cream, a box, a sheet, a pillow, a feather, etc.
Additionally, it is helpful to recognize different types of play. These main types of play are:
- Exploratory play
- Cause-and-effect play
- Toy play
- Constructive play
- Physical play
- Pretend play
Fostering Healthy Play
The first way you can help your child foster healthy play is to develop their joint attention. Joint attention is when both the adult and child are fixed on the same thing at the same time. It is a shared experience where both people are involved. Some parents reading this may be disheartened because they know how difficult attaining joint attention can be. But know that it is a process that takes time to develop in a child with autism. Shared attention, understanding, and handling emotion are all things you can work on with qualified ABA therapists.
An autistic child may tend to avoid sharing experiences, finding them uncomfortable. Parents mustn’t take their child’s avoidance personally because joint attention can cause feelings of distress. A gentle way to include yourself in your child’s experience might be sharing space for just a few seconds during preferred play. This nudge will show the child that shared space can be fun!
If you keep track of your child’s play, note when they are most engaged and receptive. Perhaps you will learn that bath time is a great place to practice songs, or eating snacks motivates more language. Track progress and celebrate every win!
5 Ways to Encourage Play in Children with Autism
1. Encourage your child to touch you and develop a reaction that makes them light up.
The response can be a goofy expression or laughter, for example. You want to motivate the child to approach you again. Be creative when finding something that delights them!
2. Pause the play while the child is engaged.
Doing this creates an opportunity for your child to use language or gestures to continue to play.
3. Play peek-a-boo games.
This game is easy to engage in! Including pauses increases anticipation and creates the opportunity for the child to ask for more!
4. Make silly faces.
Keep the child engaged while you reveal expressions.
Movement is commonly a motivating way to engage. Get the child moving; for example, pick the child up or dance side by side. Engage them with simple steps and lots of smiles and laughter. Play songs they love from their favorite shows and movies and get lost in the moment. Even if you can only maintain a couple of seconds of eye contact, consider this a win!
Play-based Autism Treatment: ABA Therapy
At ABA Centers of America, ABA therapy is fun and playful, allowing our clients to make the most progress. Our clinics are colorful and filled with lots of fun, interactive objects. Our in-home therapists bring games and activities that will make any child look forward to their ABA session! Get in touch with ABA Centers of America today to schedule a free consultation and learn how one of our autism specialists can support your child.