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13 ways to play with your autistic child

How to play with your autistic child

Updated: August 29, 2023 · 12 Minute Read

Amanda Dixon, MEd, BCBA, LBA, ABA Connect's Director of Clinical Quality

Reviewed by:

Amanda Dixon, MEd, BCBA, LBA, ABA Connect's Director of Clinical Quality

Highlights

  • Many autistic children adore music, music therapy, or just making noise. Use music as a tool for play by incorporating different sounds and musical instruments into your time together.
  • Many autistic children have unique sensory needs and preferences. Have some fun with a sensory kit.
  • Parallel play (playing beside your child but not with them) is a valid way to build connection and teach valuable skills.
  • Some autistic children crave eye contact, while some are averse to it. Peek-a-boo might be a no-pressure way to gauge your child’s desire for meaningful eye contact.

How to play with your autistic child is a common question we hear from parents. While good play skills are associated with greater empathy, better decision-making abilities, and improved teamwork in kids with autism,1 you may be thinking “my child doesn’t know how to play” or “my child doesn’t like it when I try to play with them!”

Autistic kids know how to play in their own way. They may prefer to line up their toys instead of playing pretend like walking action figures. Many have sensory-related interests like playing with sand or water. Some show a keen interest in particular subjects like trains, space, or animals. Others show a deep interest in activities like drawing with vivid colors, gardening, or taking things apart/putting things together! Some autistic kids do prefer to play alone. In that case, you can respect their desire for solo play while still engaging them.

 

There are so many amazing ways children can play!

 

Source: NeuroWild

 

13 expert and parent-backed ideas to engage with your autistic child through play:

 

  1. Be active with your child. If your child likes physical play, you can chase them, tickle them, toss them into the air (or onto a crash pad), jump on a trampoline, etc. Some kids may enjoy a simple walk or ride in the stroller. This is also a good way to connect playfully. If you have the energy, sprint back and forth with them in a safe space, play hide-and-seek, or the floor is lava.
  2. Try back-and-forth games such as Patty Cake, “hot potato,” or tossing a ball back and forth. This can help your child learn turn-taking, and creates important connections in their brains which will be used for social situations, memory, and more!
  3. Closed-end activities (with a clear beginning and end), like shape sorters and puzzles, are preferred by some autistic children. It can reduce anxiety because your child will know what to expect and what’s expected of them. Closed-end activities and toys can also teach skills such as matching, sizes, and sequencing. Over time, closed-ended activities can become more difficult (e.g., larger puzzles, building from a model, games, etc.) which can help teach sharing and turn taking.
  4. Just sit quietly next to your child as they enjoy their preferred activity. If your child is watching a show they like, quietly join them and watch, too. You may try asking questions and if they don’t like it, you can go back to just enjoying it with them.
  5. Try parallel play. Playing beside your child (but not necessarily with them) is also a valid and valuable way to play. Even if it doesn’t seem like your child is paying attention, it’s a good time to teach your child one way they can interact with others while modeling play skills and values (like kindness and sharing). One thing I do with my son is just sit next to him and quietly start building with blocks or some other activity I know he likes. He usually joins right in and takes over!
  6. Give your undivided attention. This is something we can all forget to do as parents. We’re so busy trying to get things done and keep our kiddo alive, we forget the basics. Try giving your child 15–30 minute “bursts” throughout the day of your full, undivided attention. No phone, no nothing, just doing what they want to do. Playing with your child won’t mean as much to them if you’re not fully present. (They can sniff out when we’re not really feeling it.) Your child may be interested in stuff you’re not interested in, but making the effort to be present and attentive anyway will mean so much to your child. Allow them to tell you all the dinosaur facts, act out all the movie scenes, or whatever else their heart desires.
  7. Some autistic children crave eye contact, while some are averse to it. Your child may want eye contact sometimes and other times they may not. My son loves it when we make silly faces, act things out, etc. and he loves making eye contact when we play. Eye contact is one way that children “reference” adults to learn how to make certain facial expressions, figure out what’s expected of them, or learn what’s safe. Peek-a-boo might be a no-pressure way to gauge your child’s desire for meaningful eye contact.
  8. Follow their lead. If you’re not sure what your child is into, simply observe them, and they’ll eventually show you. For example, if your child suddenly stops in the store because they see a picture of a butterfly, try taking them to a butterfly garden or playing with faux butterflies at home. Your child will reveal what their interests are, even if they can’t verbalize them. You can always stretch and engage your child in new interests and ways to play (when they’re regulated and ready), but starting with what they like will increase the likelihood of making a meaningful connection with them.
  9. Stim with them! You can participate in your child’s stimming (also known as self-stimulating behaviors which usually involves repetitive movements or sounds), or even build on it to make the activity even more fun! For example, if your child likes spinning in circles (vestibular seeking), spin them on a swivel chair. You can pause and wait for a cue to go again (like a smile, “more”, or giggles). You can even turn your child’s stims into a game! If your child enjoys “zoomies” (running back and forth) as a form of stimming, try racing them or creating an obstacle course. Having fun together doesn’t always have to include talking. Joining in with your child’s stims can create a powerful bond.
  10. Go with your child’s flow. So often we try to control our children’s activity, usually for their safety. This type of parenting style is often associated with an insecure attachment. If your child would rather run up and down the hill at the park instead of playing on the playground equipment, run with them! If they’d rather play with the box the toy came in instead of the toy, get in there with them! Allowing your child to be themselves will go a long way in connecting with them in meaningful ways.
  11. Get out of your comfort zone! Loosen up. Get silly! Making meaningful, playful connections with your child may require you to put yourself out there in a way that feels different. Kids don’t have to play how we play. The way your child loves to play may feel different, look different, and sound different to you. But be willing to be uncomfortable! If you meet your child where they are, you can make a better connection.
  12. Engage your child through music. Many autistic children adore music, music therapy, or just making noise. Try using music as a tool for play by incorporating different sounds, musical instruments, and types of music into your time together. My son loves to watch song videos like this one on YouTube Kids and act them out together. You can also create musical instruments using bowls, pots, pans, boxes, or other objects hanging around the house! Sing-a-long books or karaoke can be fun, too.
  13. Use sensory needs as a bridge for time together. Many autistic children have unique sensory needs and preferences. Creating a sensory kit at a low cost and spending time with your child playing with it can be a great way to have fun together. You can play with kinetic sand, slime, water, feathers, and a variety of other objects. Here is a list of our favorite autism-friendly toys! Your child will likely enjoy fulfilling those sensory needs, and it’ll be even more special to share it with you.

 

Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed these expert tips and explored some of our favorite resources. Playing with your child can also help build healthy attachments. We can’t know for sure what comes first, play or secure attachment, but one thing’s for sure: play is important! You can respect what your child needs and enjoys, while also expanding their skills and forming a deep connection with them through play. If you need professional support, some ABA programs or relationship-based interventions like DIR/Floortime are centered around play-based therapy.

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Article References

  1. Elbeltagi R, Al-Beltagi M, Saeed NK, Alhawamdeh R. Play therapy in children with autism: Its role, implications, and limitations. World J Clin Pediatr. 2023;12(1):1-22. Published 2023 Jan 9. doi:10.5409/wjcp.v12.i1.1
  2. Marcu I, Oppenheim D, Koren-Karie N, Dolev S, Yirmiya N. Attachment and Symbolic Play in Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2009;39(9):1321-1328. doi:10.1007/s10803-009-0747-y
  3. Milteer RM, Ginsburg KR, Mulligan DA, et al. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bond: Focus on Children in Poverty. Pediatrics. Published online January 1, 2012:e204-e213.