The importance of play in autism

By: Monika Misra Special Educator

“Play is what I do when everyone else stops telling me what to do.”

Man is a social animal and the process of learning to live in society starts from childhood. Childhood games make us aware of many social rules. A child learns a lot during play but Individuals with Autism often have challenges in meaningful play and understanding play rules.
Play is natural and valuable for all young children. Play and development are reciprocal, progressive, and transformative. It promotes good physical and mental health. All children should have easy access to play places that are safe and that support quality play. All children have the right to play as stated in article 31 of the united nation convention on the rights of the child.

Play helps to develop the physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral capacities of a person. It provides a state of mind that, in adults as well as children are uniquely suited for high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all sorts of creative endeavors.
Play gives us a chance to practice what we are learning, it is not just having fun but about taking a risk, experimenting, and testing boundaries.

How Autistic play is different?
Children with autism often can’t or won’t play typical childhood games
Kids with autism play differently from other kids. From a very young age, they are likely to line objects up, play by themselves, and repeat actions over and over. They’re also less likely to engage in games that require “make-believe,” collaboration, or social communication.
Toddlers with autism often get “stuck” in the earliest types of solitary play. They may engage in activities that have no apparent meaning or purpose.

Some familiar situations for parents with young children-
• A child stands in the yard and tosses leaves, sand, or dirt into the air over and over again.
• A child completes the same puzzle repeatedly in the same way.
• A child stacks objects in the same pattern and knocks them down or becomes upset if someone else knocks them down.
• A child lines up toys in the same order again and again, with no apparent meaning to the chosen order.
• Find it impossible to share games with other children.

Why is play difficult for them?
• Lack of Imitation Skills
• Lack of Symbolic Play Skills
• Lack of Social Communication Skills
• Lack of Joint Attention Skills 

Play skills affect a variety of learning situations, and a child who cannot play appropriately will have a very hard time making social connections with other kids. Much of their communication and interaction occurs through play.

Play can help in various ways
• Play helps children develop skills that are important for learning and development.
• Different types of play develop different skills.
• Children on the spectrum might need help with learning to play in ways that develop their skills.

Why it’s important for children on the spectrum
• It helps your child learn and practice new skills and abilities.
• It is important for your child’s overall development.
• It includes the ability to explore the environment.
• Children can learn to copy others.
• Children can learn to share things.
• Children can learn to take turns.
• Children can learn to imagine what other people are thinking and feeling.
• They learn to communicate and many more.
• They learn to build strong relationships.

Tips to help you and your child get the most out of play
• Use your child’s interests
• Choose activities that your child can do
• Use your child’s strengths
• Talk only as much as you need to
• Keep playtime short
• Redirect inappropriate play
• Encourage your child to touch you and come up with an appealing response.
• Cover your face with your hands and then reveal different expressions.
• It is best to start teaching play skills with simple cause-and-effect toys, such as a Jack in The Box or a keyboard.
• Many people don’t realize it, but strong imitation skills are a prerequisite of pretend play.
• To teach play skills, you should model a happy and exciting effect. The child is observing not just the play skill, but your face, voice tone, and mannerisms.
• Remember that we are teaching play skills and play is fun.
• Play is an enjoyable experience
• Dancing was probably the most motivating way to engage a child.
• Encourage play in different environments. For example, if your child likes playing with Legos at home, encourage your child to play with Legos at a friend’s house. Reward your child for playing and using their skills in different places and with different people.
• Watch your child throughout the day and look for the GREEN LIGHTS (times when your child shows interest in an activity), however ordinary it might seem to you. These are the perfect times to teach and learn.
• Use play to help your child develop everyday skills. For example, dressing a doll or changing in and out of dress-ups can help your child learn to dress themselves.
• Follow your child’s lead with play. Join in with your child’s play, rather than trying to guide it. And watch for signs that your child is getting bored or losing interest – knowing when to stop or change is important.
• Work with your child’s thinking and learning strengths. For example, if your child is a visual learner, you can work with this strength by using pictures of the different steps in a game or activity.
• Use 4Es (Energy, Excitement, Enthusiasm, Enjoyment).
• Remember to reinforce the child’s efforts.

From where should you start
• The first thing to start with is developing joint attention. Joint attention means both the adult and the child are fixed on the same thing at the same time, experiencing the same reaction and awareness that both people are involved. This process takes time to develop in ASD. 
• Second thing is autistic children tend to avoid sharing space, finding it uncomfortable. Parents need to understand that joint play can cause feelings of anxiety. Try to start with sharing space, even if just for a few seconds, to show that it can be fun.
• Try making a few informal notes when observing your child. Record when are they most accessible and receptive.

Types of play
• Solitary Play
• Parallel Play
• Associative Play
• Cooperative Play
• Pretend Play
• Rule-Based Play
• exploratory play
• cause-and-effect play
• toy play
• constructive play
• physical play

Solitary Play
Solitary Play is typically the first level. In the solitary play, the child manipulates objects on their own. In the solitary play, the child plays by himself. There is no connection and interaction with anyone in the environment at that time. For example-shaking objects, reaching out for toys, showing and pulling toys.
Things to remember while teaching solitary play
Begin by teaching your child to imitate one action, for example, putting a single puzzle piece in an inset puzzle, putting a peg in a pegboard, placing a shape in a shape sorter, or rolling a car.
Remember to provide positive reinforcement to your child when he/she is engaging in the activity.
Also, use appropriate prompts, and gradually fade prompts so your child is engaging in the activity independently.
When your child develops one-step manipulation with toys, you can work on teaching your child two-step sequences of actions. For example, put a doll in the car then roll the car or bottle to the doll’s mouth then the doll to bed.
• Select a toy that matches their skill level.
• Keep it simple.
• Choose a toy based on your child’s interests
• Provide a model to show your child how to use the toy appropriately.
• Provide the appropriate prompt level for your child to be successful using the toy.
• Fade your prompts as your child engages more independently with the toy.
• Remember to reinforce your child for using the toy appropriately.
• Initially keep the playtime short and increase the time as your child becomes more motivated to play.
• Always end your child’s independent playtime on a positive note to encourage future play.

Parallel Play
Parallel Play is described as two children sitting near or beside each other while playing with similar objects (for example, playing with blocks, coloring, play dough, sand, and water play).
Parallel Play teaches your child to share space with another child while engaging in solitary play.

Things To Remember in Parallel Play

• Have two sets of materials.
• Set out toys and/or activities that are highly motivating for both children.
• Set up the environment to promote closer proximity between the children.
• Also consider how close your child can tolerate being to another child.
• Also select a peer that would be cooperative and would be a good model for your child.
• Use physical or gesture prompts to engage your child in the activity.
• Try to avoid using verbal prompts as they are the most difficult prompts to fade.
• Remember to reinforce both children when they are engaged in Parallel Play

Associative Play
In this stage of play, children interact with other children by giving, taking, and sharing play materials.
In this stage, your child begins to engage in activities in which a group of children participates in similar or identical activities. a group of children is playing with a set of building blocks and they’re all sharing the blocks but building their towers. Social interaction at this stage is minimal between peers.
Things To Remember in Associative Play
• You can help your child with ASD learn skills for Associative Play by encouraging him/her to take turns or trade items while still playing on his/her own.
• When you play with your child, teach and practice turn-taking behavior.
• Turn-taking games will promote communication.
• Being nearby so you can prompt and reinforce your child through the task to promote turn-taking.
• Initially, you may need to physically prompt your child through all the movements.
• Remember to fade the level of prompts.
• Remember to reinforce.

Cooperative Play
Cooperative play is when children play together with shared goals. They may agree on rules and organize their play. The game/activity usually has a goal to be achieved, rules to be followed, and involves taking turns. Example- ludo, basketball, tennis, checkers, tic tac toe.
Encouraging your child to participate in cooperative play is important for fostering their long-term social development. During cooperative play, they can learn and develop several life skills that will help them get along with others and move through the world successfully.
• Children can learn:
• Cooperation
• Communication
• Empathy
• Trust
• Conflict resolution

Pretend Play
Pretend Play happens later in development and is the most sophisticated form of play. There are two different types of Pretend Play:
Sometimes your child is using his body to pretend with or without props. Here your child is acting out scenes or activities or even pretending to be different characters.
Sometimes your child pretends to use an object such as a doll or a puppet and is moving and acting for the figurine rather than for themselves.
Pretend Play is particularly important for developing the skills needed for social relationships, language, and communication.

Things To Remember in Pretend Play
You can teach your child:
• Imitation using toys.
• Gross motor imitation.
• Chain several gross motor imitations into a series.
• Pretend simple actions (drinking, eating, brushing hair, licking ice cream cone).
• Pretend with props (push a stroller, play kitchen).
• Pretend to use objects that are not present (ride a horse, hold a baby, talk on the phone).
• Pretend to be something (train, airplane, teapot).
• Pretend to be someone (superman, princess, dog).
• Daily routines (going to school, eating breakfast).
• Pretend to go somewhere (zoo, the beach).
• Dress-up and character pretend.
• Practice turn-taking.
• Teach information about daily activities in the community (e.g., What does a police officer do?  What happens in a supermarket or the dentist’s office?)

Rule-Based Play
These are highly social and competitive games. Example-sports, board games, card games, video games. Games with rules are a level of play that imposes rules that must be followed by the players. It requires self-regulation by the children who play, so they can successfully follow the rules and curb their ego needs.

Exploratory Play
Exploratory play is when children explore objects and toys, rather than playing with them – for example, feeling a teddy bear, mouthing a block, or looking at a doll’s hands. Through this type of play, children learn about their world by exploring different shapes, colors, sizes, and textures.
To help your autistic child with this type of play, you can encourage your child to explore objects around them as part of everyday activities. For example, when your child is having a bath, you could encourage your child to splash water, rub soap between their fingers, pour water from a cup, and so on.

Cause-and-effect play
Cause-and-effect play is when children play with toys that need action to get a result – for example, pressing a button to play music. This type of play teaches children that their actions have effects and gives them a sense of control in their play. It can be a chance for your child to learn to copy what you’re doing, take turns and ask you for help.
To help your autistic child with this type of play, you could take turns pressing a button to make something pop up, then take turns pushing it back down again.

Toy Play
Toy play 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.
Depending on what toys your child likes, toy play can help your child develop thinking, problem-solving and creative skills as they figure out what to do with their toys. And if you play with your child, your child gets to work on copying, taking turns, sharing things, and so on.

Things to remember in Toy Play:
• Sit in front of your child so your child can look at you, communicate with you, and see what you’re doing. This also makes it easier to engage your child in play.
• Offer two or three toys your child enjoys. This gives your child a choice but doesn’t overwhelm your child.
• Let your child lead. 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, ‘Vroom, vroom’. Or if your child likes opening and closing doors on toys, start with this and then add toy figures walking in the doors.
• Encourage your child to play if your child doesn’t copy you. You could say, ‘Your turn to drive the car’. Take your child’s hand and place it on the car, then move the car across the floor together.
• Reward your child. Use praise and positive feedback like ‘You made that car go fast. Good job!’
• Show your child short videos of people playing with toys. This can give your child ideas about what to do.

Constructive Play
Constructive play is when children build or make things. It involves working towards a goal or product – for example, completing a jigsaw puzzle, making a tower out of blocks, or drawing a picture. This type of play can help children develop motor skills, practice thinking, and problem-solving skills, and enjoy being creative.
You can encourage your autistic child’s constructive play by showing your child what to do. For example, you could try building a tower with blocks to show your child how to do it, or you could use pictures or photographs that show how to build a tower.

Artwork by Nikhil Thotam

Physical Play
Physical play is rough and tumbles play, running around, and so on. This type of play gives your child whole-body exercise and helps them develop gross motor skills. It can also be a chance for your child to explore their environment and interact with other people.

Thank You

Author Monika Misra

Monika Misra
Founder of Deific Skill Portal, Lucknow
Special Educator at sunrise learning, Noida.
Parent counsellor at Kant Brain Center, Lucknow.

The 2 artworks used for today’s blog is done by our supertalented CreativeSaathi associate Nikhil Thotam


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