By Samanta Rivas-Argueta, University of Toronto occupational therapy student
Edited by Lizette Alexander OT Reg. (Ont) with appreciation
Play is, without a doubt, one of the most important occupations in childhood. It is crucial for brain development and skill acquisition. Kids learn to use the small muscles of their hands to draw and manipulate objects. They use the bigger muscles to jump and run without falling to the ground. Play sparks innovation and creativity. It allows them to explore the world, learn to problem solve and develop communication and social skills. The benefits of play are endless. If you are interested in exploring more about it, read our previous blog, which details the occupation of play. This blog will center around play in children with autism spectrum disorder.
If you are the parent of a child with ASD, you may have concerns because your child is playing differently than other children. Children with ASD often encounter challenges to develop communication and social skills, which impact their ability to participate in certain types of play. For instance, they may shy away from social and cooperative play and have trouble engaging in pretend play. Instead, they will prefer to play alone (solitary play), and repeat actions without apparent purpose. They see the world in their own unique lens and will tend to get fixated on one particular toy or game. It may be their way to cope with stress or meet sensory needs that are unique to them.
All in all, a child with ASD will most likely play differently in comparison to their peers of the same age, and that is okay! One thing to keep in mind is that children with ASD develop certain skills at different stages of development. Parents do need to consider that they may take longer to:
- Follow instructions of a play activity;
- Copy movements and gestures;
- Take turns and respond to others;
- Transition from one activity to another;
- Pay attention to their surrounding;
- Share objects;
- Incorporate new toys or activities;
- Use their imagination to pretend to do something;
Eventually, it is important to support children with ASD to engage in more diverse play activities that incorporate flexibility, creativity, and social engagement. This will allow them to continue developing practical skills. And here is where you can help.
(Raisingchildren.net.au, 2020; Rudy, 2020; Manning & Wainwright, 2010)
General Tips for Home
Your child may have only a few play interests at the moment. You can try to encourage exploration, diversity and socialization in play with the following strategies;
- Introduce one small change at the time. Remember that a child with ASD will need to get familiar with an activity before engaging in it, as they prefer routines. Start with changing one small aspect of a play activity they like. When they become familiar with that change, then you can introduce another small change. For instance, if your child likes spinning a toy, try making the toy jump and then spin it. And see if he or she can reproduce the movements.
- Picture me play! Model how to “pretend play” and use books that narrate how children play together. Research has shown that scripted dialogues and modelling are effective ways to teach a child with ASD how to pretend play and play with others.
- Playdates. Organize scheduled playdates for your child to practice interacting with another child in both structured and unstructured activities.
- Visuals. Use visual prompts as a way to support play activities. Playbooks and play scripts are useful strategies to help your child remember the sequence of a play activity. Visuals are also useful to support transitions from one activity to the next.
(ErinoakKids Centre for Treatment and Development, 2020; Murdock & Hobbs, 2013)
Children with ASD often develop a fascination with trains. What is it about trains?
- Trains have wheels. Objects that spin can meet children’s need for sensory input.
- Trains are organized in lines. Lining up objects is a common behavior observed in children with autism.
- Trains are predictable and follow a schedule. Following a routine is often preferred as children with autism may have fewer stress coping strategies to deal with differences in routine and activities.
With this in mind, trains can be used as a starting point to further develop their skills. Here are four fun ideas you can do using trains;
- Support the child in making the train travel under a tunnel and over a bridge.
- Line up the trains and ask your child to jump over the trains. This play activity will promote the development of gross motor skills.
- Line up the trains and ask your child to pretend to be a train by placing themselves on all fours at the beginning of the line and make a chou-chou sound. Have the other train follow the child. This play activity will promote the development of gross motor skills, while practicing pretend play.
- Name the trains and tell stories about them (like Thomas the Tank Engine) to help engage in pretend play and develop communication skills.
How Occupational Therapy at TCTC can help
Occupational therapists (OTs) are skilled at implementing interventions to address goals regarding play. Using a holistic and client-centered lens, we are able to assess and accommodate for the child sensory and developmental needs. OTs also coach the parent through play with their child in order to support them throughout the developmental stages of play. Refer to our previous blog for a more detailed list on how OTs can support play.
In summary, play in children with ASD is often different due to difficulties associated with communication and social skills. They tend to get comfortable with repetition and do not engage in imaginative play. To further develop their skills, they may benefit from additional support around play. Contact us if you have concerns related to how and/or how much your child is playing. We would be happy to speak with you about setting up an assessment and discussing how we can help!
Bennett A. (2108). What Is It About Autism and Trains?! Retrieved from: https://www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/what-it-about-autism-and-trains-0
ErinoakKids Centre for Treatment and Development. (2020). A Parent’s Guide: A Parent’s Guide: Teaching Play Teaching Play Skills to Children with to Children with Autism. Retrieved from: https://www.erinoakkids.ca/ErinoakKids/media/EOK_Documents/Autism_Resources/Teaching-Play-Skills.pdf
Manning M. M., Wainwright L. D. (2010). The role of high-level play as a predictor social functioning in autism. J Autism Dev Disord. ;40(5):523-33. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19921415/
Murdock L. C., Hobbs J. Q. (2013). Picture me playing: increasing pretend play dialogue of children with autism spectrum disorders. J Autism Dev Disord. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20872061/
Raisingchildren.net.au. (2020). Play and children with autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from: https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/school-play-work/play-learning/play-asd#:~:text=Children%20with%20autism%20spectrum%20disorder%20(ASD)%20enjoy%20playing%2C%20but,play%20in%20a%20repetitive%20way.
Rudy L. S. (2020). The reasons autistic children play differently. Retrieved from: