Menu Close

Play and Autism: The Importance of Play for Children on the Autism Spectrum

Play is a natural and important part of a child’s development. Play can help build a child’s imagination, creativity, social skills, and more! For children on the autism spectrum, play is even more important.  

Continue reading to learn more about play and autism. 

What is play?

When most people think of play, they think of children with their toys or maybe playing games like hide-and-seek. But play can take many different forms and can look different for every child. 

Play can be defined as an activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation. Play activities include exploring, experimenting, interacting with objects and peers, pretending, and more!  

The importance of play for kids with autism

Play is an important part of development for all children. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed that playing enhances the brain structure and function of children. Play promotes executive functioning skills, allowing children to play to achieve a goal while avoiding distractions.

Play can help address some of the common challenges for children on the spectrum, such as social interaction, communication difficulties, and restricted interests or repetitive behaviors. Different types of play provide children with autism the opportunity to learn and grow in these areas.

Different types of play

There are six main types of play that a child will engage in. Each type of play builds upon the previous. 

  • Exploratory Play: In exploratory play, children explore objects and toys, instead of playing with them. For example, touching a soft teddy bear or chewing on a block. Exploring or examining objects is how children learn about the world around them. This is why small children touch everything and often put items in their mouth.
  • Cause and Effect Play: When a child participates in cause and effect play an action must be completed in order to get a result. For example, playing with a jack-in-the-box or pressing a button that makes a sound. Cause and effect play teaches children that their actions have effects. This kind of play can give a child a sense of control and is a great way to teach taking turns.
  • Toy Play: A child begins toy play when they begin to learn how to play with a toy in the way it was designed, like throwing a ball or pushing a toy car. Play like this can help children develop thinking, problem-solving, and creative skills as they figure out what to do with their toys.
  • Constructive Play: The goal of constructive play is to complete a goal or task and often involves making or building things. For example, completing a puzzle or building a tower with blocks. Constructive play can help children develop motor skills and practice thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Physical Play: Physical play is just that, physical. This type of play includes things like running, playing tag, walking, riding bikes, and more! Physical play gives your child whole-body exercise and helps them develop gross motor skills.
  • Pretend Play: A child starts to pretend play when they begin using their imagination for play. For example, a child might pretend to eat in a restaurant or fly on an airplane. They might pretend to be their favorite movie character or build a fort out of pillows. Pretend play can help a child develop skills necessary for social relationships, language, and communication.

Children with autism often play differently 

For children with autism, play may look different. While every child is unique some common differences parents may see are: 

  • They prefer to play alone.
  • They can be rigid and struggle with things like taking turns, role-playing, and following the rules. 
  • They may engage in repetitive activities like lining up objects or opening and closing a door. 
  • They resist engaging with parents and peers. 
  • They may seem unaware of other children. 

Benefits of play for children

Play has many benefits for children including:

  • Social skills development: Play provides opportunities for children to practice turn-taking, sharing, and interacting with others.
  • Language development: Through play, children can practice verbal communication, vocabulary, and conversational skills.
  • Emotional regulation: Play can help children learn to manage their emotions, cope with stress, and develop self-regulation skills.
  • Cognitive development: Play stimulates cognitive skills such as problem-solving, planning, and decision-making.
  • Gross motor skills improvement: Many play activities require whole-body movement and stabilizing muscles.

How can you encourage your child’s play?

Encouraging play in children with autism requires a supportive and structured environment. Here are some strategies for parents to practice:

  • Follow your child’s lead. Watch your child during the day and keep an eye out for any time they show an interest in play. Take advantage of those opportunities and don’t force play. Let your child guide you when, where, with what, and for how long you play. For example, if your child likes to spin the wheels on cars, begin by taking turns spinning wheels or transition to spinning an appropriate toy such as a pinwheel
  • Lean into your child’s interests. For example, if your child likes dinosaurs buy different dinosaur toys and puzzles to get them potentially interested in different types of activities.
  • Provide a variety of toys and activities tailored to your child’s developmental level. Give your child lots of different choices, especially while learning what types of toys and activities they are drawn to. 
  • Encourage play in different environments. For example, if your child likes playing with blocks at home, take those blocks to different rooms in the house.
  • Use visual supports and cues to improve a child’s understanding of an activity and increase the likelihood of participation. Visuals can help a child not only understand what to do in a specific activity but also what to expect throughout the activity.
  • Break down tasks into smaller, manageable steps. By breaking an activity down into smaller steps the activity or task becomes much less overwhelming. 
  • Use positive reinforcement and praise to encourage engagement.

Importance of play in therapy

Autism intervention therapies, such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), often incorporate play to meet the child where they are.

Play is the foundation of how children learn and by incorporating play into a child’s therapy session, therapists are able to develop a more fun and engaging atmosphere for children. This not only encourages children to build trusting relationships with their therapists but also helps them to participate and learn. Play in therapy gives children an opportunity to explore and interact with their environment in a way that feels natural to them.

Interested in learning more about ABA therapy? You can click here to learn more about our approach to ABA therapy.