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The importance of play for children with autism

Natasha Maseyk - ProfileWritten by Therapy Focus Occupational Therapist Natasha Maseyk

Many parents ask: What is autism? Why does my child have autism? What can I do to help my child now they have a diagnosis?

Autism is characterised by three common traits, difficulties with social interaction, impaired verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviours. To what degree a person is affected by autism varies, and it is important to remember that no two people living with autism are the same.  The good news is that, due to the increase in the diagnoses of autism, there is a lot that can be done to support the people who live with it.

Early intervention is key when supporting a person with autism and evidence proves that supporting a child through play is the best way for them to learn. Play is more than leaving a child to play with toys, the root of play is social interaction and engagement with people. From early experiences of play, children learn to understand body language, eye contact, joint attention, initiation, sharing, problem solving and referencing skills. Play helps children to develop important skills that they will need for the rest of their lives.

Play takes many different forms and there are many different patterns of play including:

  • Attunement play:  This is the basic grounding for play and involves a backwards and forwards interaction between the child and the adult. This form of play also supports emotional regulation. 
  • Body play and movements: This play includes leaping, climbing, crawling and jumping. It helps prepare the brain and ready the child for the unexpected and unusual. Interestingly, children with autism often do not engage in this form of play and have difficulties with dealing with unexpected change.  
  • Object play: Manipulating objects in different ways such as banging rocks, this type of play leads to the development of sound problem solving skills.
  • Social Play: This includes rough and tumble play and celebratory play. This type of play leads to the development of social awareness, co-operation, self-esteem and pride.
  • Imaginative and pretend play: playing house, doctors ects. This plays leads to the development of mind and understanding of others, innovation and creativity and trust in others.
  • Narrative play: Storytelling, reading together and retelling the day’s events. This leads to the ability to make sense of the world and your place in it.

Children with autism often find play confronting and challenging because it is unstructured and forces them to do things they have difficulties with, such as socialising. Experts recommend that a child with autism receive 15-20 hours of social engagement a week to support their development, but this can be difficult to achieve in this increasingly busy world.

Here are some tips to help you support your child with autism to learn and socially engage through play:

  • Watch your child; follow the natural pattern that they create in their play, as this will support them to engage with you on their level.
  • Once you and your child know the pattern, change it slightly to challenge them and to promote problem solving and social engagement. This is called introducing variation to the play.
  • When playing with your child try to create a positive memory catchphrase. This is something that stands out from the interaction to make it memorable, and it can be used to start play again. This can be a song, rhyme, gesture or object. 
  • When playing with toys, make sure you retain a role in the activity so that your child does not only focus solely on the object.
  • Frame your face by holding your hands or objects up to your face to help your child understand that referencing people faces is important. 
  • Include siblings and other children as much as possible.
  • Look for opportunities to play in day to day life like sorting the washing, reading, colouring, walking to school.

For more tips on how prompt learning through play please speak to your therapist.

Helpful resources:
Stuart Brown: Play is more than just fun (TED Talk).
Neil Stuart, Tanya Catterall: Way to Play Handbook, Autism New Zealand.