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 Play tips for parents of children with ASD 

Play isn’t just entertainment – it’s the key to exploration and discovery for children and is a powerful and vital tool for learning. It enables them to grasp complex concepts, promotes the development of critical thinking skills and also stimulates the imagination and encourages creativity. For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who may face unique challenges, the structured yet flexible nature of play offers a safe and supportive environment for growth and self-expression. However autistic children often require additional support and encouragement to fully embrace the world of play. Changing how you play with your child could not only make you a more fun and engaging play partner, but it could also teach them new ways to play and communicate with others. Read along for more tips for parents of children with ASD.

Move away from adult-led play  

Before looking at strategies parents can use to help their children, let’s think about 

some of the skills children with autism can often find hard:

  • Processing information
  • Following instructions
  • Processing social interactions
  • Responding to their name
  • Answering questions
  • Looking at others
  • Following another person’s gaze, point etc.

When playing with an autistic child, it’s important to understand that they might not respond in the same way as other children. If you constantly call their name, ask them questions or give directions, it can be overwhelming for them and they might feel they can’t join in or express themselves which could make them lose interest in playing altogether. They’re more likely to feel comfortable and engaged if they lead the play and join in when they’re ready.

Follow their lead 

The most important tip for parents of children with ASD is that play should be something your child wants to do, guided by what they like and enjoy. They should be free to choose what they want to play and how they want to play it, with your help if needed. The main goal is to make sure they’re having an enjoyable time. As autistic children often struggle to communicate their preferences, it’s important to notice cues that indicate disinterest or frustration such as turning away, so you can respect their space or provide an alternative. Similarly, recognising cues that indicate engagement such as imitating your actions or moving closer to you, will help you to encourage and extend your child’s play and maximise their enjoyment. Play tips for parents of children with ASD 

Get down to their level 

When you are playing with your child, get down to their level so you can see each other’s face. This could be sitting or lying on the floor, sitting opposite them at a table, or next to them on a sofa, wherever your child is most comfortable. Being at your child’s level will improve your awareness and connection. You’ll find it easier to follow their lead and show interest in what they are doing. You will have better eye contact which will allow you to pick up on subtle cues, like facial expressions, body language and communication attempts. You may realise that certain noises, actions, or expressions are directed at specific things you hadn’t noticed before. 

Incorporate their ‘favourites’ 

Many children with autism have topics, themes, or characters they are particularly interested in. Use these ‘favourites’ by creatively incorporating them into activities. If your child is interested in animals, come up with some yoga poses that represent their favourite animals. If they love a certain TV show, make a scavenger hunt using pictures of different characters and hide them around the house or garden. If they love trains, pretend to be trains as you go on a walk.

Comment on what you’re doing 

Instead of giving instructions and asking questions, try to make comments about what you’re doing without placing any expectation on your child to respond. Instead of saying “Look Freddie, I’m making a house from these blocks. Do you like it?”, simply say, “Wow, I made a house!”. Add sound effects to the play (animal noises, vehicle noises etc.) and build anticipation with countdowns or “Ready, steady, go!”. If your child is commenting on the play, try repeating what they say and add something to reinforce and expand on it, for example, “Oh no!” – “Oh no, it fell over!”.

Don’t rush 

Give your child opportunities to contribute to play in their way without placing pressure on them. You could comment or model a play action, then pause to see if your child responds. Keep in mind that children on the autism spectrum sometimes need some extra time to process things, so wait a while for them to join in and don’t move the play on too quickly. And if your child isn’t interested in an activity, that’s ok. Instead of trying to convince them to pay attention, you can always try again later. They could just be distracted or not interested at that moment.

Sensory play 

Sensory play can be extremely beneficial for autistic children. It involves exploring different materials and textures using a combination of the senses. There is a wealth of sensory play ideas available online to help parents to cater for their child’s individual needs and preferences. Some benefits include:

  • Cognitive development: Sensory play helps children to understand how things work, compare the characteristics of different materials, and develop problem-solving skills.
  • Social skills: Sensory play enables children to observe how others play, copy and share ideas, and learn to play cooperatively with others.
  • Self-awareness: Sensory play helps children learn what materials they like and don’t like, increasing their understanding of themselves.
  • Physical development: Sensory activities work the small muscles in the hands and fingers which helps to improve fine motor control and coordination.
  • Emotional development: Sensory play can be a great way for children to release energy or stress and also to express positive feelings.
  • Communication skills: Sensory play provides children with opportunities to express their reactions to materials, such as showing excitement when splashing water or surprise when experiencing something new.

ASD is truly a spectrum, meaning no two children are the same and the journey of understanding and supporting your child in their play is ongoing. But by embracing their uniqueness, tailoring play activities to their individual interests and needs, and remembering to focus on what your child can do rather than what they can’t; you will create an environment in which they can learn, grow and connect through play. Here are some sensory play ideas.