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What Can One Learn About A Child With ASD When You Play With Them?

Not everyone will get the opportunity to have first-hand interactions with children on the spectrum in their lives.

The defining features that distinguish a neurotypical child from one on the autism spectrum are the restricted and repetitive behaviours and the impairment in social communication that the latter group displays. These features are not only observed in their daily living routines, for example, requiring a specific plate setting during meals or the order in which they put on their clothes, but also in other areas of their lives like during play.

Not everyone will get the opportunity to have first-hand interactions with children on the spectrum in their lives. However, if you do, you will realise that there is plenty you can learn about these neurodiverse children just through playing with them. If you have not had that experience but would love to learn more, here are some things you can expect to understand about a child with autism when playing with them.

Interests and Behaviours

Firstly, you will learn that a child with ASD would usually have restricted patterns of interest and behaviours. As a result, they tend to engage in repetitive play, have inflexible adherence to routines, and display preoccupation with parts of objects. A child may only be interested in a specific toy (e.g. toy vehicles) and reject everything else you might offer to them, no matter how fun or engaging you think it may be. Another behaviour often observed is a child lining up their toys in a specific order instead of functionally playing with it. Riding on the example of toy vehicles, instead of pushing a toy car like how it is made to be played, a child with ASD might be seen arranging them in a straight line, sometimes even according to colour or size.

Alternatively, a child with ASD might also be observed to be preoccupied with specific parts of objects. For instance, they might be preoccupied with the wheels on a toy car and are more captivated by watching it rotate than the actual pushing of the car. Although children with ASD can be taught and prompted to play more appropriately, you would notice that the aforementioned behaviours and unique ways of playing would sometimes bring them more joy than if they were to play with toys functionally. One reason being that they derive more sensory stimulation through their methods of play.

Social Skills and Levels of Play

There is the common misconception that children with ASD do not enjoy interacting with and engaging in play with others. However, it is usually not the case. Individuals with ASD, like all beings, do have the desire to connect and form bonds with others but just have more difficulties doing so. Therefore, when a child with ASD does not communicate with and/or make eye contact with you, it does not necessarily mean that they are not interested in your presence and playing with you.

Of course, depending on a child’s age and level of functioning, their social and play skills also vary accordingly. Children with ASD might engage more in parallel or solitary play. In parallel play, a child plays separately from others but in close enough proximity where they are able to observe and imitate others’ play. Hence, one should keep in mind that although they might not be directly engaging with a child with ASD if they are in this stage, it is still a form of play. Meanwhile in solitary play, as the name suggests, a child plays by themselves. This is most likely because they have yet to develop the necessary social skills to interact with others.

Lastly, you will learn that children with ASD are generally less likely to partake in play that requires social communication, such as pretend play and collaborative play. Pretend play, or “make-believe” play, is a more abstract kind of play as it requires one to use their creative imagination and take on different social roles. For example, a child hosting a pretend tea party with their stuffed toys or building a fort out of sofa cushions and pretending to be at war with imaginary enemies. On the other hand, collaborative play requires a child to engage in activities involving high levels of social skills like turn taking, sharing, and following a set of rules. These types of play often do not come to children with ASD naturally. Nonetheless, with time, it can still be taught to them.

There may also be times when a child engaging in the aforementioned types of play, would retract and simply want to play on their own. Just like any other person, these children too would sometimes need some time to themselves. All we can and should do is to respect their time and space, and wait for them to be ready to socialise once again.

Written by: Brenda


Bernier, R. (2016, May 24). Through play, children with autism can hone thinking skills. Spectrum.

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

Ousley, O., & Cermak, T. (2014). Autism spectrum disorder: Defining dimensions and subgroups. Current Developmental Disorders Reports, 1, 20-28.

Rudy, L. J. (2020, September 2). Why autistic children play differently. Verywell Health.

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1 Comment

Sep 27, 2023

As a developmental therapist/special educator in the field for 22 years this is disgusting as it is entirely stereotypical and misleading with respect to what constitutes "typical from non-neurotypical." It is not about teaching children diagnosed with ASD proper ways to play. Toys do not come with "instructions." It is you as the therapist and guiding the parents to learn how to "play" precisely how your child is doing so. Honoring, respecting and entering your child's curiosity and domains of expression. This might, for example, involve lining up toys with your child; spinning wheels with him/her, etc. Basically, the goal is to deepen interactive back and forth co-regulation around what s/he is doing; then adding slight variations within the cont…

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