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Interactive play for children with autism

Interactive play for children with autism

Interactive play as a young child is a cornerstone to the development of friendships and social skills. Social skills are needed in most facets of our lives, from peer and romantic relationships to success in educational settings and the workplace. Through interactive play, children develop important life skills that set them up for success across the many domains of life. 

How can interactive play be a challenge?

Children with autism face many challenges that their neurotypical peers are less likely to face. 

Some of the interactive play challenges include:

  • Communication - One common area of skill deficit is in the communication domain. Children with autism often struggle with interacting and communicating with others. An inability to communicate makes it significantly challenging to develop interactive play skills. 
  • Joint attention - Joint attention is another challenge that makes interactive play difficult for children with autism. Joint attention occurs when you focus on an item or activity with another person.
  • Imitation - Furthermore, children with autism often experience delays in their imitation skills. We learn many behaviors through observing and imitating others. Without strong imitation skills, children may not pick up on the behavioral model of others that is needed to develop interactive play abilities. 

Communication, joint attention, and imitation skills can be taught, though they may not develop in a similar trajectory as they do for neurotypical children. 

Benefits to interactive play for children with autism 

Playing with other children serves many purposes for the development of a child. 

Some benefits of interactive play include:

  • Flexibility - While we may desire to have our way all the time, that is not always going to be possible. Through interactive play, children develop flexibility and learn to compromise and problem solve. 
  • Social skills - There are numerous social benefits to interactive play. Learning to share, take turns, follow directions, cooperate, and develop personal space, are all important social skills that are practiced through interactive play. The social skills developed through early play interactions often set the groundwork for future social skill development. 
  • Self-regulation - While emotional regulation certainly takes time to develop, facilitated interactive play can help children learn to cope with frustration and disappointment, thus creating a stronger ability to self-regulate one’s own emotions.
  • Cognitive development - Play provides an opportunity for cognitive skills to develop and increase one’s mental capacity. 
  • Development of friendships - As children are around preschool age, interactive play leads to the development of friendships. Friendships play an important role in one’s development of social and life skills. An ability to make and maintain friendships leads to improved quality of life for many people. 

How much playtime does your child with autism need?

Research suggests young children need a minimum of one hour spent in unstructured play activities, and at least 30 minutes spent in adult-led structured play. 

Teaching and encouraging play at an early age helps to develop so many paramount life skills, social skills, and more. 

Development of interactive play

Children learn interactive play skills through phases of play, typically starting with parallel play, and building up to pretend and cooperative play. Each phase serves an important role in the progression of higher-level interactive play skills. 

Parallel play

While parallel play is not technically interactive in nature, engaging in play near peers is a stepping stone to the development of more interactive play, however, parallel play can be challenging for children with autism. 

Tips for encouraging parallel play:

  • Start slow and build up. If your child is uncomfortable with parallel play, start by working on them tolerating someone playing across the room from them, then a few feet closer. Continue this until they are comfortable with the person playing near them. 
  • Start with someone your child feels comfortable and safe with. Rather than jumping right in with peers or others they may not be as comfortable with, practice with yourself or whoever they feel closest to. Practicing in the comfort of someone they trust can make it easier to later generalize those skills to peers. 
  • Ensure there are enough play items for each child. Avoid a conflict of there not being enough of an item for everyone to play with. At this point, you don’t want to place the expectation of taking turns. 

Simple cause and effect play

Simple interactive games such as peek-a-boo and “this little piggy” are cause-and-effect play activities that children often learn to enjoy as babies or young toddlers. 

Cause and effect play ideas:

  • Blow bubbles and take turns popping them.
  • Stack blocks and have your child knock them down.
  • Set up a simple obstacle course (i.e. one object on the floor) and demonstrate going around or through it. Encourage your child to take turns doing this. 

Pretend play

Pretend play involves the use of one’s imagination while engaging in play activities. Pretending to make food in a toy kitchen, “talking” on a play phone, or pretending to mow the grass are all pretend play activities. This type of play can be more challenging for people with autism to develop. Pretend play can be done as an independent activity, or as interactive play with others.  

Tips for encouraging pretend play:

  • Observe your child’s interests and use them to expand their pretend play skills. 
  • Role-play by acting out scenes from a show together.
  • 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. 

Cooperative play

In cooperative play, children play together in an interactive way with a shared goal. They engage in an activity together, demonstrating an interest in both the activity and the peer. It’s a complicated level of interactive play. Cooperative play helps children develop language skills, attention, self-regulation, and more. During this phase of play, it is common to see more arguments as children navigate more challenging conflicts. Through these conflicts, they learn to share, take turns, compromise, and problem solve. 

Tips for encouraging cooperative play:

  • Try simple games that don’t have a winner or a loser and each person has an important role. Putting on a play, simple board games, puzzles, or building a fort!
  • Encourage taking turns. Practice this when only you and your child are playing as well. 
  • Demonstrate good sportsmanship. While children with autism may have delays in their imitation abilities, they may still pick up on the behaviors you or others around demonstrate. Making a conscious effort to model good cooperation skills can go a long way.  

Play is essential for a child’s development. While children with autism may face challenges in the development of their interactive play skills, they can close the gap with some support from caregivers and therapy providers. Prioritizing and facilitating play can help your child develop the play skills needed for improved outcomes across numerous areas of their life.  

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