If you are a parent of a child with autism than you know that engaging your child in play can sometimes feel like a whole lot of work! Have you ever tried to play with your child and they don’t appear interested or try to leave the area? Challenges with social communication is one of the hallmark characteristics of autism, and play involves language, social responsiveness, imitation, and imagination. Increasing play skills has significant benefits for children including problem-solving skills, joint attention, imaginative abilities, cooperative learning, and fine and gross motor skills. Children with autism often have difficulty with the variety of play as well as the complexity of play. They may only play with certain toys or may not play with them in a functional way, like the child who likes to look at the car and spin the wheel but doesn’t pretend to drive it. The good news is that you absolutely can teach attention and play skills. Here are some tips for teaching play:
- Make play part of daily routines. You can spend a few minutes during bath time or night time incorporating fun into the daily routine.
- Designate a play area in your house. Look for rooms or areas that are free from distractions and that have visual boundaries so your child is less able to get up and leave the area. Save special and highly motivating toys to bring out only during this time!
- Let your child take the lead! Look for things your child is interested in or gravitates to instead of insisting on playing with a certain toy or game. You want them to be motivated to stay and play with you.
- Rotate toys….. Keep things fresh and new by putting away some toys and pulling them out once and awhile. Look for themes in what type of toys your child likes. For example, do they like toys with lights and sounds, puzzles, books, or a particular character.
- Once you have a child’s attention and engagement, you can slowly introduce new toys or games. But, don’t force them to play if they are not interested. Children with autism sometimes need several experiences with a toy before they know what to do with it and how to play with it.
- Not all toys have to be bought. Ordinary items can be super fun and are probably already laying around your house. Boxes, pots and pans, spoons, and blankets can all make for engaging and fun toys for some children.
- Movement and gross motor play can be a blast! Running, tickling, swinging, jumping are all easy things to do with your child inside or outside.
- Keep play time short! Even a few minutes of quality play and social engagement can make a big difference. Always end play time on a happy and successful note.
- Comment on what your child is doing, for example “The kangaroo is jumping.” You are providing language models by narrating your child’s play.
- Avoid asking questions and instead use positive statements. Instead of “do you want to bounce on the ball”, you could say “let’s bounce on the ball.”
Now go have some fun!