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Types of Play for Children with ASD

Autistic children, like typically-developing children, learn and have fun via play.

Play is an essential component of a child's growth. Engaging in play improves fine and gross motor skills, as well as social, communication, language, thinking, and problem-solving abilities. All these are skills important to every child’s development. Autistic children, like typically-developing children, learn and have fun via play. However, they may play differently, such as being more inclined to line up things, play alone, repeat actions over and over and engage in activities that have no apparent meaning or goal. For example, a child with autism may line toys up in a specific order over and over again, with no apparent meaning of the chosen order. They may also be unaware of other people’s actions and intentions, limiting their play with other children and the types of play they engage in.

Despite these differences, children with ASD can be explicitly taught to develop their play skills and achieve the different types of play. Other than being explicitly taught play skills, engaging in play with them allows parents and therapists to model different types of play and other skills to children with ASD while also building positive relationships with them. Here are the six different types of play for children with ASD and how we can encourage them.

1. Exploratory Play

Exploratory play occurs when children explore things and objects around them instead of playing with them. Some examples of pretend play can be feeling a soft toy with their hands, looking at the wheels of a toy car, or putting a block in their mouths. Through exploratory play, children learn about the environment around them as they explore and experience different textures, shapes, sizes and colours of the objects around them.

Exploratory play can be taught by encouraging children to explore objects around them in their everyday activities. For example, when they are taking a bath, they can be encouraged to splash bathwater with their hands, rub soap in between their fingers, cup water with their hands and pour it, and so on.

2. Cause-and-effect Play

Children engage in this type of play when they play with toys that require an action to produce an effect on the toy, such as jack-in-a-box. This type of play teaches children that their actions have effects and offers them a sense of control over their play. Cause-and-effect play provides opportunities for children to copy what you are doing, take turns and ask for your help to achieve their desired effect on the toy.

To encourage cause-and-effect play, you can take turns with playing the cause-and-effect toy with the child – such as taking turns rolling the handle of the jack-in-a-box.

3. Toy Play

Toy play entails learning how to play with and utilize toys in the intended manner, such as pushing a toy car back and forth, holding a toy phone to one's ear, or throwing a ball. Toy play can help your child develop thinking, problem-solving, and creative skills as they find out what to do with their toys. Engaging in toy play with them can help them practice copying, taking turns, sharing, and other skills.

Some tips to use while teaching toy play is to: sit in front of the child so that they can see what you do clearly, offer different enjoyable toy options to them without being too overwhelming, follow the child’s lead during the play, encourage them by verbally or physically prompting them to play with the toy in the intended manner (e.g. “Your turn to drive the car”) and provide positive feedback by praising them.

4. Constructive Play

Children engage in constructive play when they build or make things. It entails achieving a goal or producing a product, such as completing a jigsaw puzzle, building a structure out of blocks, or sketching a picture. This form of play can aid in the development of motor abilities, the practice of thinking and problem-solving skills, and the enjoyment of being creative with their toys.

To teach children with ASD to engage in constructive play, you can demonstrate how to do it. For example, you can show them how to build blocks by building them yourself and showing it to them first or you can also show them videos of other people building blocks.

5. Physical Play

Physical play occurs when the child engages in physical activities in a fun manner, such as running around or crawling through a tunnel. This provides them with a full-body exercise and aids in their development of gross motor skills. Moreover, it allows them to explore their environment and interact with other children and adults.

6. Pretend Play

Pretend play is when children use their imagination and pretence during play. For example, pretending to cook in a toy kitchen set, pretending to feed soft toys, pretending to drive a car while on a rolling chair, dressing up as characters of a movie, pretending to be a family with their friends, and so on.

Pretend play helps children develop social, language and communication skills that are important for their social and cognitive development. It also helps with developing their planning and problem-solving skills as well as understanding what other people are thinking and feeling. One way to teach pretend play to children is to encourage them to act out their favourite story or movie and providing props for them to use such as costumes.


ASD affects both social and communication skills which makes social interactions for children with ASD difficult as there is a lack of understanding of the thoughts and feelings of others and difficulties in interpreting non-verbal cues of others. However, children with ASD can still engage in the six different types of play when given opportunities to explicitly learn the skills through structured play with a parent or a therapist where they receive guidance through instructions and prompts.

Written by Hayley.


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