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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Yuvaan’s world is made of stories, not of atoms !!

My son Yuvaan’s world has stories, books, cartoons, acting an integral part of it.

But before I should start sharing my storytelling experience with my son Yuvaan.
I will provide the parents a little brief, when Yuvaan turned 2, and we saw some red flags, we started his early intervention, so the skills which I used to learn during his therapies, I would practice them at home. And since those days he had a dedicated reading time, before sleeping.

So when he was 2 we introduced the board books sets ( abc, numbers, shapes, animals etc) to him.

What I and his speech teacher noticed that he was able to read the words (whatever mentioned on the page) properly or with a little help from us.

This encouraged us as a parent to follow the reading time in a dedicated manner.

A small clip from one of his video. It was when he started reading stories at age 3

So this daily reading time at night not only helped us building an opportunity to bond more, connect more with our child but also we were able to achieve all the initial milestones together (which were required for a 2year old, like eye contact, responding to name calling, imitating sounds and actions, imaginary and pretend play, started with need based speech, to name a few..).

Initially, we used to read for Yuvaan which he used to attentively listen, explore etc..and in no time he started reading, words, sentences, storybooks all by himself.

By the age of 3 he was able to read stories and not only comprehend them but since he knew imaginary form of playing, pretend play, so he used to demonstrate each story by enacting it step by step.

He used to create the complete scene with his toys, household items etc.

Yuvaan enacting a “Dora the explorer ” episode on ocean animals. He used a bagpack, his soft toy monkey as the character “Boots” a bowl of water to make an ocean and used his toy ocean animals to use for the storytelling.

During the storytelling process, (his demonstration of a story or a cartoon episode) he would include other people as well to be a part of it as and when required. Wherever he would require other characters like Mommy and daddy etc. He would ask us to join. He would show us the page and ask us to read our dialogues..and act..and be a part of his drama.

At first, when I learnt about it, I encouraged him more. I would purchase more and more storybooks for him and would find some toys and related stuff at home to use for his story.

Yuvaan has over 100 story books at home which he has read and enacted a thousand times.
He also has a dedicated library time(in our society clubhouse library) where he goes during his leisure time.

Besides storybooks Yuvaan likes to enact his cartoons/programs coming on the TV, YouTube, or we generally play it on Alexa, for that matter, to reduce the screen time.

So, alongwith the episides Yuvaan loves to enact scene by scene. He would use the toys, create some stuff using household items, paper, craft materials etc to create the particular scene and act.

Yuvaan has taken part in his school storytelling competitions and did quite well.


Huge benefits!!!

Yuvaan’s language and communication development benefitted a lot through this.

Yuvaan started using sentences and lines picked from the stories or cartoons, at correct places and situations on his own and as usual when we saw him doing that we quickly encouraged him to do that more often.

Example – 1. One day while eating his sandwich he exclaimed “The sandwich is delicious !” ;
I was surprised as I never taught him that line or never used myself, and due to pandemic we were not going anywhere or meeting anyone at that time.

This was when, he was 3 and a half, at this time he started using sentences from different stories and his cartoons but all at correct places.
(So the sandwich is delicious line he heard from Bada talks series- episode- the clean world.)

Example 2. During the same time, the Holika Dahan celebration was going on in our society, where they lit the pyre. It was the first time for Yuvaan so he was very uncomfortable and scared with the heat from the pyre as we did the parikrama.
So he asked us to go on a drive rather. Once he sat inside the car, the ac was on, he sighed “Feeling much better” !

There are numerous such examples where he could pick a line from somewhere and uses to build his conversation and to express himself, on his own, without anyone teaching him to do so.

So Yuvaan started expressing himself at the age of 3.5 was a surprise for us and I would really like to credit this to his reading and art of understanding, enacting the story and cartoons.

By that age he was able to express majority of his feelings love, anger, sad, happy, frustrated, exhausted, sleepy, tired, even hurt. Yes you read it right!

He started telling us where actually he’s hurt; initially by saying “I am hurt, put baby lotion.” Later, when he found out that we can put bandage, and sometimes can take medicines or can visit a doctor, then now he uses these remedies in his statements when he’s hurt somewhere.

Parents, it is necessary for the child to be able to tell his/her hurt because we can see and identify the external injuries but sometimes the internal ones we cannot.

There is one more instance that I would like to mention here. Once, Yuvaan told me about ulcers in his mouth which was a huge thing to be able to tell for a 3 and a half child on the spectrum. Actually, once he was unable to eat his breakfast and told me “I am hurt”, I asked him where, to which he replied “mouth”. I asked him again after unable to find anything outside that are you hurt inside the mouth to which he replied “yes.” I examined again and found out that there was a big mouth ulcer due to which he was unable to eat.

For Yuvaan he not only mentions the hurt, its place, sometimes would also tell that how he got hurt. He knows that what one should do if they got hurt. Applying lotion or bandage; take medicine, or visit a doctor, he would quickly suggest these remedies; or do it by himself as a first aid.

I am just quoting these examples, that how, this could be helpful in completely understanding child’s feeling or one concept and we can make the child independent as well, as most of the time after getting a minor hurt or something, Yuvaan applies lotion or put bandage on his own, taking out from the first aid kit. If the hurt is pretty bad like a few days back while playing Yuvaan had hurt his knee badly, so he started crying “Help me my knee Doctor, take me to the hospital.”

Trivia time :))

Guess what Yuvaan’s favorite line for him to use when he’s stuck somewhere in some situation and he doesn’t find much to express in panic. HELP! HELP!

Another one, guess, what Yuvaan does when he would want something from us, or want us to do something for him..He would come and gives hug and kisses.. and would start saying non stop his and my dialogues “Mumma, Please give me so and so thing..please..” ; “OK beta, I will give you” “Thank you” , all these dialogues he would say by himself.. :-))

Needless to say more on the benefits!

I will add to the list when I will recall more examples. Thanks for reading patiently!!

Author Shilpi Mayank Awasthi

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Let’s Play

What is the occupation of a child? … To play.. Yes!  It’s as simple as that, and there is tremendous potential in play. The truth though is somewhere while teaching A,B,C, 1,2,3 we have forgotten to let our children play.

Remember our childhood, when we came back from school, without even waiting to change our uniform or to finish lunch we would just run out to play with our friends. In each of these games, be it hide and seek, running and catching each other or pretend playing teacher, teacher, doctor, doctor (that’s how we use to call these games as kids ) we never realised that we were developing so many vital skills which were going to help us later to become physically strong mentally agile, emotionally stable and problem solvers. But, Is our children playing enough?

Play develops all our skills, gross motor, fine motors, cognitive, imaginative thinking  (required later when the child is asked to write about, “A visit to the Zoo” or “How I spent my summer vacations” in creative writing), body balance, environmental awareness (essential for children to be actively involved rather than be lost in their world), eye hand coordination, spatial awareness ( a child who has a concept of space in gross motor level is able to transfer it better on the paper and able to maintain the correct size of words and letters or maintain adequate space between them while writing.) , attention and concentration. Research also shows that children when playing freely are totally off guard and at times project what they are going through in life through play. Personally, I am a big fan of play and try to incorporate it as much as possible in my sessions too. Well, you can say I relive my childhood when I am playing with children.

Play also does not mean buying expensive toys, things around in your house are excellent play material so let’s start ….

For sensory needs( I start with Tactile or the touch sense) collect all varieties of grains, sand, scotch brite, plastic scrubbers and loofas, different types or textures of door mats, dough kneaded in different colours (you can use food colours for this), coloured water (which child doesn’t like water play? )

While using these always observe your child if he doesn’t like a particular texture don’t force him. Let the child learn his shapes, animals, vehicles etc. through these different textured materials. Hide them in these textures, e.g. dal or sand let the child find them. Concepts like wet & dry, hot & cold, or splashing etc can be done through water play. Simply splashing water at each other connects you with your child, he enjoys it tremendously and is totally in synchronisation with you, giving you all his attention.

Plain flour, sand, sooji, powder etc.  can be used to teach pre writing skills, its’s the most effective tactile input too. Let the child trace his standing, sleeping lines or shapes in these. Let them race their small cars on tracks you have made in them. It will also ensure a lot of mid line crossing activities helping further in brain development. I have also used these to develop concepts like matching. By placing dots vertically, with water colours, of  different colours , on a table, I would ask the child to join dots across the table which are of the same colours sing their index finger. I also make the child copy whatever I am drawing on the table using different mediums.  This is messy but so much fun for the child.  It is also at the same time developing his matching skills as well as tactile input, and eye hand coordination, creating so many wonderful moments of interactions.

To develop eye contact use dough or powder, put it on your nose, cheeks, forehead basically on your face, making funny faces and sounds. Let the child remove it from your face. Put bindis or stickers on your face naturally guide the child to remove it from your face. So much eye contact without saying look at me. Bubbles are my trump card and the moment I start blowing them I have seen each crying child stop crying immediately and look at bubbles and me, with so much fascination. Use them in hundreds of ways, make the child catch the bubbles, run after them, track them or pop them. If he is expecting you to blow more bubbles just wait for him to say “more” or give you some sort of indication. You are encouraging the child here to communicate with you or creating avenues for interaction.

Similarly hang a balloon or soft toy and give your child a small toy tennis racket or let him use his hands for now.  Slowly push the toy or balloon toward the child and let him hit the target with his hand or racket. This improves the attention and reflexes of your child. As your child’s confidence increases push the toy from different angles and with increasing speed. Hitting a balloon also is an excellent activity to develop focus, eye tracking (a skill required for your child to read from a book or black board) and eye hand coordination.

Free play also gives you a ground to develop natural conversation.  E.g., “I am putting powder on your nose, cheeks, and tummy” or “put the circle on the yellow car, or oh! look at the train, it’s going under the tunnel or is on the bridge”. Building train tracks with bridges or tunnels on the way are excellent avenues for great natural conversation. While sitting across the room keep vehicles of different sizes and send it across to the child using adjectives like big, small, colours etc. use phrases like the “car goes vroom- vroom”, or the “cow says moo” while showing animals to the child. Children love to imitate such sounds.

Another fun activity I do is, sitting across the child at his eye level and making him press my nose or cheeks or chin, and each time the child does that I produce sounds like the pig says “oink oink” (while the child is pressing my nose), or meow of a cat (while pressing my cheeks) etc. The squeal of delight and the natural eye contact I get from the child during these moments are priceless and worth all the efforts. You can use this later to press the child’s nose, cheeks and encourage him to produce the same sounds.

Spread different textured door mats on the floor one after the other. Make fun activities like transferring objects (which could be nouns) from a box, on one end to the bucket in the other end. The child here is getting his sensory input as well as actively learning concepts.

You can use hoopla rings to teach concepts like, jump into the ring, let’s jump out, spin it to show how it spins and then falls. I am yet to see a child, who doesn’t giggle in delight when he sees the hoopla spin. Same is the effect when I use car tyres, the child loves to jump into the tyre from the edge or balance on the tyre and pick a smiley balls (I picked up different emotion balls from amazon, I name the emotion and the child searches and picks that ball all the time balancing on the tyre) and throw it towards some target, or simply walk around the edges balancing.

You can create an obstacle course like keeping a small chair, a table some cushions on the floor and now instruct the child to crawl under the table, on to the chair, crash on to the cushions, the list being endless. This simple activity develops each and every aspect of your child, be it his gross motors, instruction following, midline crossing, planning his body movements in advance, thus increasing his spatial awareness.

Play is active learning in contrast to flash cards or most table top activities. Since the learning is happening through child’s interest it is more permanent. A child who’s sitting and attention has been developed through play, in my experience, I have seen takes naturally to table top activities. I have seen the child later taking interest then in books or writing too.

 Play is actually so much fun and so much active learning and language development in a natural way. The learning here is active not passive. You get the child’s full attention and engagement without saying again and again, “Look at me” You just have to put on your thinking caps and let’s get started.

Ahoy! All Aboard ….Aye, aye, Captain…..

Happy playing ……