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Play is a Child’s Work

play Playing dress up, tea party, soccer and Hide-and-Seek is as easy as breathing for neurotypical kids. They innately know what to do and nothing makes them happier than games with their friends. That’s not the case for children with autism. For them, playing, especially with pals, isn’t second nature; it’s actually kind of foreign. What’s a parent to do? Teach your child with autism to play! It’s a fun job and an important one, because play has a lot of developmental benefits. For example, it builds social skills, joint attention, communication, imitation, problem-solving and turn-taking. To get your honey sweet on the idea of interacting playfully with you – and, later on, other kids – follow the steps below.

Step #1: Pique an Interest in Play
Sally could be quite content to line up ducks by herself for hours. To her, it makes a lot more sense and is more fulfilling than playing Duck-Duck-Goose with someone else. So, your first priority is to entice her out of her bubble to engage with you. Here’s how:
•Keep her favourite toys in view but out of reach. Watch what Sally gravitates towards, then bring one of her preferred things to your play area. It’s important to use motivating toys and games to keep your kiddo’s interest.

•Sit face-to-face with Sally. Take one of her chosen toys and start having enthusiastic fun with it. Over-exaggerate your facial expressions to draw her into your play. Choose a short and engaging routine – maybe it’s making Dora dance and sing a song or using Thomas to play Peek-a-Boo – and repeat it a couple of times. Pause briefly throughout your performance to encourage Sally to look your way.

•Once you have her attention, give Sally a moment to reach out for the toy. Wait and don’t say anything. It’s important that she initiates! Position yourself at her eye level and wait until Sally looks at you before you pass over Dora for her turn. TIP: If your kiddo doesn’t initiate, switch to a more motivating toy and start your play again.
Then take your turn again and repeat your routine, keeping it consistent so that she learns the pattern. Remember to over-exaggerate your actions so Sally stays enticed. Play, taking turns throughout, for as as long as she’s interested. The initial goal should be engagement and time on task. If Sally does not wander away while you have her toy, your goal has been met.

Step #2: Expand Play
When Seth has mastered the steps above, start extending playtime and expectations. Here’s how:
Get talking. Encourage Seth to verbally request more specific play. Start by teaching a single word. For example, if he loves that you’re making Thomas the Train crash into blocks, model the word crash. Wait for him to repeat, “crash” (or some type of approximation like “ah”) before knocking down the blocks. Once your kiddo has this verbal imitation down, pause during play and wait for him to say “crash” independently. When he does, make that crash really good so he keeps initiating further interaction.
Tip: When Seth is proficient with single word initiations, systematically increase the length of his requests from two to three to four, etc, words.

•Play with more and for longer. As soon as Seth is engaged and having fun with the specific toy in your play routine, add one more toy to the mix. As well, incrementally increase how long you play choo-choo and robots together. If you typically drive the train around the track once and then crash, add one more step to the routine. Drive around the track, crash and then drive through a tunnel. Systematically add one more step to the routine once he’s engaged. Be careful not to add too much too quickly or you’ll lose his attention. Shower your sweetie with tons of high-fives and tickles for appropriate sitting and playing.

•Teach imitation skills. When Seth is comfortable sitting and engaging with you for more than a minute, teach him to copy your playful actions. Give him a turn with the toy and, with your hands over his hands, help him perform the same sequence/actions that you did with Thomas the Train. Continue to sit face-to-face and over-exaggerate your facial expressions as you play. Fade your assistance as he becomes more proficient at copying you.

Remember: Play every day! Make each time irresistibly fun and silly – be wildly entertaining — to keep your kiddo interested in joint activities.

Image by David Castillo Dominici at

Reference: S.J. Rogers, G. Dawson, and L. Vismara (2012). An Early Start for Your Child with Autism: Using Everyday Activities to Help Kids Connect, Communicate, and Learn.


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