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Why is Learning Appropriate Play Skills Important to Children with Autism?

Developing appropriate play skills is crucial for your child’s overall growth.

Children with autism enjoy play time just like any other child. You may however notice that your child may choose to engage in solitary play longer than their peers, may not want to share their toys, or even may not be able to copy play actions such as driving a toy car or building lego. This does not mean that your child is anti-social, or that your child does not enjoy playing. It could be because your child lacks imitation skills, receptive skills, and sometimes even just doesn’t like the toys you’re asking them to play with.

Developing appropriate play skills is crucial for your child’s overall growth. Not only does playing with certain toys develop their senses, and gross and fine motor skills, play in general can also help them develop social, imitation, and receptive skills. Here are some ways you can engage your child through play and hone their abilities!

Teaching your child to share

Social skills include turn taking, sharing, and even showing interest in what someone else is playing. A study done by Koegal et. al (1987) on how child-preferred activities chosen by children with autism affects their social behaviour found that children with autism were more keen on playing with their peers. This suggests that children with autism are capable of social interactions, and you can encourage this by allowing them to choose their preferred games or toys and showing interest in their interests.

Sharing can also be taught by giving your child one of his favourite toys, and having other children or even yourself hold on to another of their favourite toys. Once your child has played with his toy for a few minutes, you can encourage or prompt them to swap their toy for another toy that you or another child has. Remember to praise them for sharing their toys to reinforce the sharing behaviour. You can say something like “Hey! I like that you’re sharing your toy with me!”

Shaping imitation and receptive skills through parallel play

Imitation and receptive skills can be developed through parallel play. Parallel play is when a child plays alongside someone else using the same or similar toys. You can even help by narrating the actions, such as “Let’s drive the car”. If your child is unable to copy your actions, you can repeat the instruction, then prompt them by holding their hand and moving the toy car together with yours. Once they have gotten the hang of driving the toy car, you can fade off the physical prompt and simply ask them to drive the car with you again. You can even praise them when they successfully drive the toy car on their own by saying something like “Oh wow! Look at your car go!” This also develops their receptive skills since they have to listen to your instructions in order to successfully play with the toy. Remember to watch for signs of boredom and switch up the toys every once in a while. The goal is to allow them to learn while enjoying play.

Introducing your child to new things through sensory and exploratory play

Introducing exploratory play is a great way to heighten your child’s senses and expose them to a myriad of textures, sounds and feelings. Some toys can include play doh, bubbles, slime, and textured books. You can even help develop their fine motor skills by getting them to pinch play doh, pop bubbles or poke the slime.

Those are just some of the many ways to develop appropriate play skills for children with autism. Always remember that play is meant to be fun and should not feel like they are forced to engage in something they are not interested in, or forced to learn a task. Keep the play fun, and try not to focus too much on getting your child to “get the hang of playing” in one session. You can teach them appropriate playing skills progressively so that they will always be engaged and will not develop aversive feelings toward certain toys you are teaching them to play with.

Written by Cheryl.


Koegel, R. L., Dyer, K., & Bell, L. K. (1987). The influence of child‐preferred activities on autistic children's social behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20(3), 243-252.

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