How to Encourage Play Skills for Children with Autism

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Fostering Play Skills for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Play is an essential part of facilitating a child’s development, including their social, emotional, physical and cognitive growth. Playing requires the use of all five senses, and as children grow, so do their play skills. Though the concept of ‘play’ may seem like a natural skill, it is actually hard work for children as they are exercising their brains and honing other important skills, such as problem-solving, creativity, curiosity, and independence. Play skills are also important for the development of emotions and social and communication skills to prepare children for school.

While play is a skill that may come naturally for some children, it can present a challenge to children with ASD and their families. Autism Spectrum Disorder affects a child’s ability to reciprocate social and emotional interactions, which includes imitation – a skill that is essential for developing play skills early on – and therefore, by identifying the strengths and abilities of a child with ASD, their play skills can be promoted.

Here are some helpful tips to help build play skills for your child with ASD:

  • Find a Good Fit. Play needs to be safe, developmentally appropriate, and a good fit between your child’s abilities, the environment and the activity. Start with activities that are motivating for your child and find ways to increase or expand the length, complexity, and interaction. It’s important to remember that the play should be fun for you and your child.
  • Follow Routines. Consistent routines are the key to making activities for a child with ASD. By arranging regularly scheduled play dates or self-care routines like teeth brushing, you can promote confidence and help your child succeed. For children with ASD who struggle with change, families can offer social stories (a scenario that teaches children how to interact in a specific situation) to rehearse or prepare how to react to new situations.
  • Select the Right Toys. When choosing a toy for your child, consider their developmental age, physical and cognitive abilities, and interests. Will the toy promote thinking, problem solving, movement, communication, and interaction? Are there different ways to use the toy? To promote social skills, choose toys that incorporate sharing and turn-taking. Passing a ball, or taking turns when building a tower with blocks helps the child practice and develop social skills. If your child only has a few interests, use the toys and activities they know or like to expand their play. Start off by offering two or three toys your child enjoys. This gives them a choice without overwhelming them, and also makes them feel as if they have some control over the play activity.
  • Model, Model, Model. Modeling for your child how to play appropriately with toys or interact in social situations can teach them what is expected of them. Sit in front of them so they can look at you and see what you’re doing. This will make it easier for them to engage in the play. Modeling fosters imitation, which is a crucial skill for developing play, social and communication skills. When possible, include other family members, peers, neighbors, etc. to model for your children. The more exposure they receive interacting with different people, the better.
  • Follow their Lead. Join in with what your child is doing or is interested in, rather than trying to guide their play. Begin by imitating what your child is doing, then gradually incorporate another piece to the activity. For example, if your child is spinning the wheels of a car upside down, join in with them and spin them, too. Then turn the car right side up and run it along the floor, saying, “vroom, vroom!” If your child doesn’t immediately imitate you, encourage them to join in with verbal and physical guidance. You could do this by saying, “Your turn to drive the car”, then take your child’s hand and place it on the car and move it across the floor together.
  • Give Lots of Praise and Encouragement. When your child does something right or plays or interacts appropriately, immediately reward your child with enthusiastic praise and positive feedback, such as, “You built a tall tower…great job!” This will motivate them to continue doing what they were doing. You could add other rewards with the verbal praise, such as a back-and-forth activity of blowing bubbles, if that is something your child enjoys. Also encourage your child to use their play skills in different environments, and reward them for using their play skills in different places and with different people.
  • Know Your Child. Knowing when to stop or change is very important, so look for signs of boredom or lack of interest. If your child prefers structured routines, lay out a plan to help them know what to expect in order to prevent them from being too overwhelmed. If they prefer less structured, informal play, then give them more flexibility, such as playing in their backyard. Some children prefer drawing, painting, or singing while others gravitate to running, kicking a ball, or swimming. Try different activities to see what work best for your child. Additionally, children with ASD can also have various sensory preferences, so consider incorporating different smells, textures, movements, and sounds in your child’s play. Note your child’s reactions and preferences and introduce appropriate challenges to create successful play experiences. As for any child, children with ASD have a wide range of thinking and learning styles and abilities that can be built on. They are often visual learners, so consider building on this strength by taking pictures of the different steps in a game or activity.

Remember that play between you and your child is something that should come naturally, and can be done in almost any setting or activity. Everyday activities, such as bath time, provide a potential opportunity for play and learning for your child. By following these tips and strategies, play can be fun for both you and your child!



De Fina and Anderson (2011, March 15). Play for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Morrison, Sainato, Benchaaban and Endo (2002). Increasing Play Skills of Children With Autism. Journal of Early Intervention, 23 (58-72).

Promoting play for a child with autism (2012, April 12).