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Play is a fantastic way for you to bond with your child and to help them learn and develop new skills, both physical and social.

Young boy playing in the water © Photo by Sara Dunn

Play is a fantastic way for you to bond with your child and to help them learn and develop new skills, both physical and social. Play is a developmental process that children go through and just like any other process; their autism can have an effect on how they engage with it. For parents, play means being prepared to get your hands dirty, sometimes literally, and getting down to your child’s level.

Fortunately play doesn’t have to mean expensive toys and games. Play can involve the simplest of things like sand, water, mud, running, jumping and make believe. But before you can help your child learn through play you need to figure out where they are already.

Types of play

There are three main types of play; sensory, exploratory and imaginative. Very briefly these are:

Sensory play is about exploring your environment. This can mean playing with toys but the natural environment too. It also includes figuring out how your own body works. Playing with fingers, toes and hair, your own and others, are all normal parts of sensory play.

Exploratory play is about making sense of how things work. It’s about your child learning that a square block fits in a square hole but it’s also about finding other uses for things too. A teacup can be used for a tea party, but it can also hold toy cars or be used to scoop sand.

Imaginative play is the area often thought to be hardest for children with autism. It’s the step on from using the teacup as a teacup and as a sand scoop. From using the tennis racquet to bounce a ball to strumming it like a guitar. From mummy being mummy to the Gruffalo or, if you’re lucky, a fairy princess.

Under normal developmental conditions children begin with solitary play, moving through the stages as they learn to watch then play alongside and, finally, with others. It’s these stages which can get delayed in children with autism and which you can help them with.

Supporting your child to play

It may seem obvious, but the most important part of play is that it should be fun. Bear this in mind when watching your child play and trying to figure out how you can help them. Use games and activities which relate to their interests. You also need to think about:

  • The environment. Are there too many distractions? Potential sensory issues?
  • Being prepared. Set the scene and have activities ready for them so you’re giving them the best chance to understand what’s happening
  • Deciding how long an activity or game will last. Quality over quantity is key
  • Getting down to your child’s level. And we mean this literally! Get involved and demonstrate things. The best way to learn is from watching someone else and it’s a key component of social play
  • Be relaxed and enjoy yourself!

Understanding the importance of play

Play, and what we enjoy about it is very individual but repetition is important. If you find something you and your child can do together and enjoy together, keep at it. Over time you can begin to slowly change it and adapt it for other settings. Singing a song for example can, over time, be used to prompt putting on a coat and shoes by mixing up the lyrics and adapting them for your own use.

Remember too that your child may not be motivated by traditional toys in the way other children are. Be flexible and try to understand the reasons behind more unusual activities. Banging a shoe on a wall isn’t too different from banging a drum but one tends to be viewed as more acceptable than another.

Helping your child develop new play skills will help in other areas too. Sharing and turn taking is a progression of social play and imaginative play can really help with language and communication skills.
Although not autism specific, Play England and Play Wales’ websites have lots of great ideas and resources for promoting play.

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