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How Children with Autism Can Achieve Learning Through Play?

Play skills can be developed and learnt; be in their world.

Learning through play - social skills, functional uses, etc.

Children with Autism can have fun and enjoy play time. However, some types of play can be challenging for them and behaviours of limited play (i.e., play in a repeated manner or fixate on certain toys) are common. For example, a child might like building Legos in one color or complete his puzzles in the exact same order each time.

In addition, difficulties in social skills, functional play skills, and adaptive behaviour (activities associated with daily living) may be present, such as the ability to:

  • Imitate others

  • Take turns

  • Engage in group play

  • Use toys that have a basic intended use (i.e., toy cooking sets)

But your child can learn and develop the skills essential for play, and you can be a part of this. Playing with your child is also a fantastic way to develop a sense of connectedness with them and to promote their engagement and learning.

Why play is difficult for children with Autism?

Why is it that children with Autism play differently? Most face daunting difficulties that stand between them and typical social communication. These include challenges with:

  • Joint attention skills

  • Symbolic play skills (i.e., pretend play)

  • Adjusting to novel or sensory qualities (e.g., noisy toys or those with certain tactile qualities)

  • Knowing how to initiate, sustain, and end a play activity

How to facilitate play skills in children with Autism

If the lack of play is a possible symptom of Autism, are we able to teach play skills to children with Autism? The answer, in many cases, is yes. As a matter of fact, most therapeutic approaches focus predominantly on building and remediating play skills, and you can take an active role in the process. Here are 5 tips to help you interact meaningfully with your child.

1. Approach your child with ease and respect

Children with Autism can have their own personal space preference, some require a larger amount of personal space while others don’t. Find the physical proximity both you and your child are comfortable with and keep in mind that this can vary from day to day (be adaptable and understanding). Take a minute to observe and interpret your child’s sensory needs before entering their space. For example, observe and take note of things such as ‘how near is someone before my child reacts’ or ‘what telltale signs are there’.

Note: Close proximity and touch can be threatening and stressful for your child. There will often be visible clues so be patient and slowly experiment with your child’s proximity to sit, touch, and etc.

2. Be in their world

Instead of making or introducing a new toy/activity, playing alongside your child and interacting with their preferred activity may be more comfortable for them. It is a very simple way to help your child to notice you and interact with you. Let go of the lead and allow your child to be the main character. For example, if your child jumps up and down, you jump up and down.

By playing copycat, you and your child can connect and have fun, and at the same time your child can learn various valuable social skills. Studies have shown besides encouraging eye contact with the person imitating them, children with Autism have also been observed to vocalize, smile, play, sit closer, touch, and imitate the person imitating them.

3. Understand the value in parallel play

Parallel play (i.e., playing next to your child) who appears to be ignoring your presence is in fact extremely significant to your child. Do not be in despair or give up if your child does not pay heed to you, your presence is still felt and appreciated. And with patience, valuable play skills can be exchanged and demonstrated during these interactions; it can be somewhat considered the “middle step” between independent play and interactive play. For example, your child can learn skills including social skills (taking turns, sharing and cooperative play), cognitive skills (problem solving), or communication skills (asking and answering questions).

4. Teach and demonstrate fun

Children with Autism tend to learn visually and require more demonstration on how to play with a certain toy/activity. If your child does not engage with the toy/activity, it may be that they just simply do not know how to as play skills may not come naturally to them. Slowly try to facilitate your child’s engagement by showing them how to play with the toy/object. Importantly, do not take full control and allow them to try it out for themselves. For example, your child wants to play with a spinning top but struggles to spin it. You show them how it is done by doing it yourself then guiding their hand to do it but do not continuously prompt. After, allow your child to experiment and engage in trial-and-error.

5. Change and transitions

Change can be difficult for children with Autism; do not rush or force them to change activities. Rather, work on their play skills on their terms and take it easy. Make small changes and slowly try to expand their play skills by adding new activities bit by bit. For example, your child might insist on playing with his/her favorite blue playdoh, but you want your child to explore other colors. You could start by just putting a new color beside your child and getting them to touch it. Once your child is comfortable with that, you could try getting your child to color mix the playdohs or create different objects (e.g., butterfly, ice-cream, flower, monster and etc.), and so on.

Praise and reward your child like a high-five, a ‘good job!’ or a sticker when they try to cope with the changes (e.g., playing with the toy differently or trying a new activity).

Note: If your child is still resistant to move on, give them more time to play with the same activity until they are ready to move on. Remember, slow and steady.


  • Children with Autism often have delayed play skills

  • They exhibit difficulties in social skills, functional play skills, and adaptive behaviour

  • They can learn and develop the skills essential for play

  • Play is difficult for them due to challenges with joint attention skills and etc.

  • You can play an active role to help your child in 5 ways:

    1. Find the physical proximity your child is comfortable with

    2. Let them be the main character (i.e., allow them to lead)

    3. Engage in parallel play with your child

    4. Facilitate their engagement by demonstrating how to play with the toy/activity

    5. Expand on their play skills on their terms and pace

Don’t be afraid and don’t lose hope. Along with these tips on hand, keep an open mind and playful spirit. With time, meaningful and connected play experiences with your child will come to light and bloom. If you’re lucky, you just might get a glimpse into their wonderful and unique world!

Written by Joey.


Beyer, J., & Gammeltoft, L. (2000). Autism and play. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publication.

Field, T., Field, T., Sanders, C., Nadel, J. (2001). Children with Autism display more social behaviors after repeated imitation sessions. Autism, 5(3), 317-323.

Holmes, E., & Willoughby, T. (2005). Play behaviour of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 30(3), 156-164.

Hume, K., Sreckovic, M., Snyder, K., & Carnahan, C. (2014). Smooth transitions: Helping students with autism spectrum disorder navigate the school day. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 47(1), 35-45. doi: 10.1177/0040059914542794

Rudy, J. L. (2020). The reasons Autistic children play differently. Retrieved from

Sanefuji, W. & Ohgami, H. (2011). Imitative behaviors facilitate communicative gaze in children with autism. Infant Mental Health Journal, 32, 134–142.

Smith, M., Segal, J., Hutman, T. (2020). Autism Spectrum Disorders. Retrieved from

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