Playing with Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

by Rebecca Klaw, M.S., M.Ed.

As every reader knows, the child at play is not idle or aimless, boring or bored, or wasting time. The child is, in fact, engaged in complex activity that develops skills and builds, bit by bit, concepts as complicated as physics and essential as empathy.

How do children play? For typically developing children, play begins small and simple. With input from parents, teachers, siblings and friends, this simple play begins to expand. Over time, the child’s play becomes rich and very complex. The elaboration of play is fueled by social interaction and serves as the basis for early learning.

Children with autistic spectrum disorders have difficulty learning from others how to expand their play. They tend to play in unusual, solitary, and repetitive ways. They often miss the social component to play because interaction can be so hard for them. They might be good at manipulating objects and figuring out how they work. They might be great at creating sounds, sights and motions for their own pleasure. What they are not good at, however, is playing with someone else. Children with autistic spectrum disorders tend to get stuck in their play and they need, more than anyone, the input of others.

How do we play with a child who wants to be left alone? We just insist that they play with us. They need to learn, through patient and skilled adults, how to play. It takes persistence, intelligence, flexibility and often humor. Children with autistic spectrum disorders need to be guided in memorable ways to explore all aspects of their world - not just how to manipulate objects, but how to share and build and pretend and elaborate and invent and describe and create.

Here are some strategies that my team of parents, therapists and teachers has found useful:

When all else fails - Try some of our team‘s favorite attention grabbers:

Whatever you find that works will benefit your child. Remember that play is a wondrous and wonderful part of human development and essential for learning. With patient persistence, we can show our children with autistic spectrum disorders how to do it!

Rebecca Klaw is the Clinical Supervisor of Pressley Ridge Schools/Center for Autism in Pittsburgh, PA. She presents both locally and nationally on intensive play-based intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 8, Number 1 - Fall, 2002]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.

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