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Independent play for children with autism

Independent play for children with autism

The ability to independently entertain yourself is a skill typically learned at an early age. For some children with autism and other developmental delays, independent play doesn’t always come naturally. Play has numerous benefits to children’s development, and is more than having fun. Caregivers and therapy providers may need to provide additional guidance in teaching children with autism independent and interactive play skills. 

What is independent play?

Play can be different for different people. Generally speaking, play is any activity that provides enjoyment and entertainment. 

Parents, caregivers, and therapists may need to dedicate a bit of extra help in the development of their child’s play. While we want to help guide our children in the development of their play skills, we want to ensure we’re providing the autonomy to choose their leisure activities. Read on to learn more about how to support your child’s development of independent play. 

Understanding the differences

Some children with autism can find the ability to play independently challenging compared to their neurotypical peers. One way that children learn play skills is by mimicking and imitating siblings, parents, peers, or others engaging in play activities or engaging in real-life activities, (which children then act out in play). However, imitation skills can sometimes be delayed in children with autism, so they may not pick up on the behaviors of others as easily. Additionally, children with autism often lack the communication skills needed to learn from others in developing those play skills. 

Benefits of play

Sometimes adults think of play simply as a way for children to have fun and take a break from learning or other responsibilities. However, play is so much more than that. Play IS learning. There are many different types of play, and each is beneficial in its own way.

Some of the main benefits of play include:

  • Executive function skills - Working on memory, planning, organization, flexibility, and emotional control. Executive functioning can be delayed in some children with autism, making it even more important to help children learn developmentally appropriate play skills. 
  • Social skills - Taking turns, carrying conversations, problem solving, learning to follow social cues, and perspective taking are some essential social skills learned through play.
  • Emotional development - Frustration, excitement, and anticipation are emotions children learn to develop as they work through different emotions that arise through play. When play is facilitated by a parent, caregiver, or professional, children are supported through those emotions and develop self regulation abilities which are needed in many other facets of life.
  • Motor skills - Children develop fine and gross motor skills, strength, muscle control, and coordination through play. This physical development helps children develop skills in countless other areas of adaptive living. For example, a child who develops strong fine motor skills through playing with legos may be developing the skills necessary for other fine motor life activities such as zipping one’s coat and securing buttons. 

Benefits for caregivers

In addition to the many direct benefits to play, caregivers also benefit from their child’s ability to engage in independent play. When children are able to engage themselves independently in an adaptive way, parents may be able to get things done around the house while having confidence that their child can play independently.

Types of play

There are different categories of play, which arise through various developmental milestones. While some children with autism may not develop their play skills in the same way or timing as their peers, they can learn to engage their environment through each of the following stages of play. 

Exploratory play

This type of play is also known as sensorimotor play. This is typically the first type of play to develop, as it provides the building blocks for future play development. In exploratory play, children learn to experience the world through their senses. They may mouth toy keys, shake a rattle, or feel a plush toy. 

Oftentimes children move from exploratory play to cause and effect play between 12-18 months of age. Exploratory play in older children with autism may look like repetitive actions to take in different sounds, feelings, and sights. 

Consider some of the following tips to support your child in learning exploratory play:

  • Try getting your child outside in nature - Exploring the sounds, smells, and feels of nature, even just in your backyard, can be a great way to engage in exploratory play. 
  • Vary the sensory experience of their toys - Toys with various colors, textures, lights, etc. It may take some trial and error to find the types of toys that they are most interested in exploring. 
  • Be mindful of your child’s cues - If your child shows discomfort or distress with a certain sensory experience, discontinue and try another item or activity.

Cause and effect play

Engaging with a toy in order to get a specific result is cause and effect play. A classic example of this is a jack-in-the-box toy. The action of winding up the handle results in the action of the animal popping out. This is done through play with toys and with others. A child may learn to play peekaboo with their caregivers as a cause and effect activity. Helping children to develop play through cause and effect helps them develop a new desire to explore the world by learning what different things do. 

Try some of the following stratgies to support your child in learning cause and effect play:

  • Start simple - Using a basic toy that your child is able to operate with minimal assistance, i.e. an object that is operated with a basic press of a button and has an immediate effect. 
  • Show them the way - Demonstrate the behavior that results in the effect, and prompt them to try. Make a game out of taking turns. 
  • Encourage play with various toys - Different toys and activities have different cause and effect formats, and your child may be more interested in one over the other.
  • Talk through the process with them - For example, you might say “what do you think will happen when we press this button? Let’s try it together!” Then “Woah the monkey popped up, how cool is that!?” 

Parallel play

Children engaging in their own form of play next to other children is known as parallel play. This typically emerges around 2-3 years of age. Parallel play serves an important role in the development of interactive play and other social skills. An ability to engage in one’s own play activity without becoming distracted or otherwise bothered by the people around you and the activities that they are engaged in, is paramount in adaptive and social skill development. 

Try some of the following strategies to support your child in learning parallel play:

  • Schedule parallel playtime - Having a routine for parallel playtime daily with yourself or another family member and your child can help encourage consistency in your child’s development. 
  • Approach slowly - If your child is not quite comfortable with parallel play, start by sitting across the room, then gradually move closer as they show tolerance to playing closer to each other. 
  • Provide opportunities for your child - Give your child space to play near peers who are likely to allow your child space to parallel play without overstepping boundaries or exceeding their comfort level. 

Toy play

Toy play consists of engagement with individual toys and demonstrating the correct use of the toys. Toy play can help your child develop problem solving skills and improve creativity. 

Try some of the following strategies to support your child in learning exploratory play:

  • Allow your child to get creative - Encouraging your child to engage in toy play doesn’t have to mean limiting creativity. If they play with a toy in a different way than intended, you can show them the correct way by gently saying something along the lines of “how cool! I wonder what would happen if we play with it like this” and demonstrate the correct usage. 
  • Offer two to three choices of toys - More than three choices may be overwhelming, but providing those choices fosters independence and a sense of control of their environment. 
  • Provide opportunities with various toys - If your child is not yet showing an interest in toys, it is possible that they aren’t interested in the toys presented. Vary the toys offered and see what they gravitate towards the most. 

Constructive play

Through constructive play, children build or make things with blocks, playdoh, legos, puzzles, etc. Constructive play helps children develop their fine and gross motor skills, problem solving, and creativity.  

Try some of the following strategies to support your child in learning constructive play:

  • Be mindful of your child’s limits - Children with autism may experience sensory overload and therefore struggle with certain textures or materials (i.e. playdoh, play foam, etc.). As such, vary the items offered and build on those that they show an interest in and tolerance to. 
  • Again, start slow and build up - Your child may not be quite ready for a 24-piece puzzle, but with some support, may do great with a 5-piece puzzle. As they demonstrate success and increased interest, continue expanding to higher levels of constructive play. 
  • Find fun in household items - Use what you have around the house and get creative. 

Physical play

Running, jumping, skipping, and climbing are all forms of physical play! Any activities that utilize one’s gross motor abilities.  

Try some of the following tips to help your child in developing their physical play skills:

  • Try incorporating screens into play - If your child is more motivated by screens than physical play, they can benefit from having screens. Consider YouTube for interactive family workouts that utilize a video game approach to exercising in a fun way.
  • Create an obstacle course in your home with household objects - You can also use climbing blocks or other sensory exploration items. 
  • Get outside if possible - Try taking walks, and exploring playgrounds and parks. 

Pretend play

Pretend play consists of using one’s imagination while engaging in play activities. Playing “house”, going to the supermarket, and playing dress up are all pretend play activities. This is generally the final type of play that is mastered and can be more challenging for people with autism. Pretend play can be done as an independent activity, or as interactive play with others.

Try some of the tips below to support your child in learning pretend play:

  • Model simple, everyday actions, and prompt your child to copy you - Things like talking on a phone, banging a drum, and mixing “food” in a bowl are all great simple pretend play activities to start with. 
  • Make it silly - You might put a toy pan on a doll’s head and laugh about the doll’s “hat”. This also helps build on your child’s creativity. 
  • Use their favorite movie or TV shows - Encourage role play by acting out scenes from your child’s favorite movies or TV shows to make it relatable. 

More tips for teaching independent play 

  1. Take it one step at a time - Start by teaching an individual skill, then allow space for them to experiment and try it out. Before a child is able to master independently playing, they will need support in learning individual play skills. 
  2. Build on their interests - The goal is not to force your child to engage in non-preferred play, but rather to guide them toward finding their own interests and developing their play abilities. Observe your child when given free play time. Identify what toys or activities they appear to gravitate toward and help to expand their abilities within those items. 
  3. Let them lead - Allow them the freedom to explore the environment and show you what they want to play with. From there, you can work on developing stronger play skills using their strengths and interests. 
  4. Plan for play every day - Ensure your child’s day allows for ample time to engage in independent play, as well as facilitated play. 
  5. Be a model and give your child space to imitate - Demonstrate the play skill and say a variation of “do this”, “copy me”, or “try this”. 
  6. Use behavior-specific praise when reinforcing independent play skills - This means instead of “good job”, you might state “I love how you’re building with your blocks. What a cool tower!”
  7. Keep in mind that everyone learns in different ways - You may have to try different ways of teaching to best meet their needs. Some people learn better visually, others learn by doing, etc. Again, there will likely be lots of trial and error along the way. 
  8. Break it down into small components - If your child struggles with longer activities, try breaking the activity down into smaller parts, working on each skill individually. For example, rather than trying to teach your child to do a whole puzzle, you might teach them to put the last puzzle piece in after you completed all but the one remaining piece. 
  9. Build on their strengths - Try looking at their current strengths as stepping stones toward a greater goal. Start with areas where they are strongest and reinforce and build off of those.

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