Helping My Child With Autism Learn To Play

My child has autism and does not play.

I have heard this statement from parents and educators. In my personal observation of children on the Spectrum I have come to the conclusion that they like to play and like toys. Their p[lay style is on their own terms and is directly related to their level of emotional and cognitive functioning. As with neurotypical children, each child with autism comes equipped with their own personality, challenges, and learning style.

These children play with toys, it is in a different format then neurotypical children but they do enjoy playing just like any other child. When choosing toys for children with autism it is important to take into account that they very frequently have difficulty with social interactions.

The child has a concrete style of thinking which often hinders using their imagination. Hence, make believe and dress up clothes may gather dust in the corner. Take into account that interactive play requires mimicking others, reciprocal play, and responding to other individuals are difficult for children on the spectrum.

Choose toys that match your child’s developmental level, skill – set, level of cognitive functioning and motor skill level. Do not force toys on them that you perceive as appropriate for neurotypical children. Always take your child’s needs into account, not what neurotypical Johnny down the street is playing with.

Play can be a challenge for children with autism. However, with the right choices their social skills, motor skills, analytical skills and more can be honed. Never underestimate your child. They may not verbalize frequently but their mind is thinking.

If you think about it, it takes quite a bit of thought to line up blocks in a color coded pattern. It takes thought to line up hot wheels cars in a row according to make and model that spans from your kitchen to the living room. If we look closely, toys are not generally lined up in a helter skelter fashion. Planning on the child’s part is involved in their creations.

To reinforce social interactions with children on the spectrum, sit next to them when they are playing with a toy. Neurotypical children develop interactive skills naturally as they develop and mimic others. . To enhance your autistic child’s interactive skills during playtime mimic them instead.

Sit near the child and allow enough personal space where they do not feel stressed. If your child is spinning wheels on a toy car, pick up a toy car and imitate the child by spinning the wheels as well. In mimicking the child, interactive social play is modeled in a non threatening way. If your child is banging on a toy drum imitate their lead by banging the same beat on a drum as well.

Talk about what you are doing to reinforce interactive conversation and provide words for actions.. The child may not speak but they do hear you even if no eye contact is made. Gradually, you may be able to use one toy. Create and action with it, then offer the toy to your child to imitate your action and model sharing. Remember, baby steps always baby steps. As your child learns one skill, then and only then, provide a safe challenge one step above their newly acquired skill. This is called layering. The challenge is called a safe challenge because it is a skill they most likely can handle without having it backfire. If new challenges are to difficult, the child will become frustrated and use avoidance in the future.

If your child responds to your challenges provide immediate rewards. Initially, use stickers, a cookie or whatever works with your child in addition to verbal praise. All children love praise, autistic or not. Eventually, verbal praise may be sufficient as the child develops mastery over playing. Always let your child guide regarding how much interaction they can process. Fluctuate between playing with you and giving them space to prevent meltdowns. Keep the sessions short and gradually add five minutes on occasionally.

Jack in the boxes are great toys for modeling cause and effect. Initially the child may prefer solitary play. Offer them the Jack in the box and perhaps merely provide hand over hand to teach them how to wind the crank. I equate this as a form of peek a boo for children with autism. It provides the same learning of cause and effect yet in a style that your child may embrace. In the human peekaboo version, Mom covers and uncovers her eyes and yells peekaboo. With a Jack in the box, the child winds the crank and Jack pops out. Jack is then stuffed back in the box and disappears. In both cases the child learns object permanence.

Now on to some of my favorite toys for children on the Autism Spectrum:
Toys R Us Has a Great List Of Ten Toys For Children With Autism. Take A Look And Happy Playing.

Top Toys for Autistic Children | Toys”R”Us


Remember; always adapt your child’s learning style, personality, capabilities and even present frame of mind into choosing toys and attempting to model skills to your child. Respect when they need to have solitary play. It may not be apparent but they are learning as they line up blocks in a straight line, jump on a trampoline, (sensory stimulation and more. Never underestimate your child. Even if they cannot speak they are most certainly processing their surroundings. The child may not look you directly in the eye but they hear you. Your child learns from you and their environment constantly even if they do not appear to do so.

Have faith in yourself and your child. They will make progress, merely on their time frame and way, not yours.


I am a published author and focus on books pertaining to autism and Aspergers Syndrome. I have had special needs articles published in several magazines. I have been interviewed several times in print, on pod casts, and internet T.V. regarding the autism spectrum. I have presented autism workshops to staff, management teams, and parent groups. I offer tips on curriculum development and behavior modification within the classroom and through in-services. I am certified by the Department of Early Childhood Education as a lead preschool teacher, an infant and toddler teacher, and site coordinator qualified to manage school age programs. I have recently ventured into public speaking engagements to educate both parents and educators on autism and Aspergers Syndrome
I want my experiences and challenges to be used productively as a learning tool for other parents and for educators as well. When my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s a decade ago it was a foreign word among many parents and professionals alike. I fought for help never giving up. Through my books I wish to help parents feel like they do not walk in the dark, that they are not alone, empower them and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I also want to educate society at large on the topic of the autism spectrum. I believe all parties involved need to work as a collaborative team in order to insure a special needs child’s success.If you like my articles, aside from being the parent of an adult with Aspergers Syndrome/ A.D.D and an educational professional, I am also a published author of many special needs and autism related books written to inspire and support parents, families, educators and society at large as well. Please stop by and check out my books on at Mari Nosal : Please stop by my site at Amazon Books and check out my published books on autism aspergers special needs and more


Mari Nosal M.Ed.


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