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Teaching Your Child With Autism How to Play

Nir Nussbaum


Learning to play is the beginning of social skills development. It is a critical aspect of learning and should occur in the early years of a child’s life.  Engaging in play teaches children about the environment while also providing lessons that will help them understand and regulate their emotions and teach them how to navigate the social world and how to interact with the physical world.  Play is also believed to contribute to cognitive, motor and social development as well as advancing the growth of perception, attention, memory, problem solving, language and creativity.

For most children, play comes naturally and they slide into the give and take pattern of play with little if any coaching. For some children with special needs, especially those in the autism spectrum, play skills can sometimes be constrained and repetitive or require a lot of effort. It may be necessary for someone to teach the child how play should happen. The play that other children create may seem too complicated and confusing and it is not enough to put a child with autism next to another child and expect him to learn from him.  Even when children on the autism spectrum are interested in other children they may not know how to interact and so are unable to join in group play.

Parents can help a child with autism understand what is going on in play activities by playing games together, which are really little organized routines of interaction which may or may not include toys. Play will include social engagement, communication and sensory experiences (something that is experienced by the senses as stimulating or soothing). Every game is a routine, a sequence of elements of movement, materials and/or language. Think of the predictability of the game as the hook that you use to get your child to become interested in play.  Once the child knows what you are doing he will be more interested.

Once your child is interested and participating in the game, include new elements in the game that will teach your child a new communication or social interaction skill. Learning occurs when you disrupt the established system, just a little, by adding a new element that your child will need to consider and act upon to maintain or reestablish the system. The game is only there to proved a predictable framework in which new elements are noticed and not ignored.  Your child will need to understand the routine first (learn the game) and then be given an opportunity to participate in order to keep the game going.  You can use video models or visual supports to help your child understand the game but demonstrating a clear sequence or routine also works.

When you play you should have a specific learning objective in mind, objectives might include:

- teaching your child to imitate

- teaching your child to engage with other children

- getting your child to participate in parallel, cooperative and fantasy play

- motivating your child to say a word or ask for something

Play skills are learned best when they are practiced in a variety of different settings and with different people, so get other family members and friends to help. Use play not only as a tool for learning valuable skills but also as a way to engage, communicate and interact with your child.


Creative commons-licensed photo provided by Nir Nussbaum.



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About the author

Paula Bendfeldt-Diaz

Paula Bendfeldt-Diaz was born and raised in Guatemala and studied in a bilingual school, which is why she wanted the same for her children. She is a very passionate advocate for disability and Latino rights, loves cooking and loves going to the beach with her children. Paula is the founder and editor of the blog She lives in Florida with her husband and two kids.