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How To Play With Your Child With Autism?

Discover the joy of connection with your child on the autism spectrum through our heartfelt guide on how to play. Go beyond the basics, exploring human-centric approaches that celebrate uniqueness and foster meaningful interactions.

mark elias
Mark Elias
January 10, 2024

Understanding Autism and Play

To effectively engage and connect with children on the autism spectrum, it is important to have an understanding of autism and its impact on play. This section will provide an overview of autism, highlight the importance of play for children with autism, and emphasize the need to tailor play experiences to individual needs.

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. It is a neurodivergent condition that affects individuals differently, resulting in a wide range of strengths and challenges.

Children with autism may have unique sensory sensitivities, communication differences, and distinct patterns of play. It is essential to approach play with empathy and a willingness to understand and accommodate their specific needs.

boy sitting on white cloth surrounded by toys

Importance of Play for Children with Autism

Play is a vital aspect of a child's development, facilitating social, emotional, cognitive, and physical growth. For children with autism, play takes on an even greater significance. Engaging in play activities can help them develop essential skills, such as communication, social interaction, imaginative thinking, and problem-solving.

Play provides an avenue for children with autism to explore their interests and express themselves. It allows them to practice social skills, learn to take turns, share, and engage in cooperative play. Through play, they can also develop fine and gross motor skills, sensory integration, and emotional regulation.

Tailoring Play to Individual Needs

Every child with autism is unique, with their own preferences, strengths, and challenges. Therefore, it is essential to tailor play experiences to meet their individual needs. Here are some considerations for creating a play environment that supports children with autism:

  • Sensory Considerations: Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities. Providing a calm and structured play environment, with attention to lighting, noise levels, and tactile experiences, can help create a comfortable space for play.
  • Organization and Structure: Children with autism often benefit from clear organization and structure in their play activities. Establishing routines, using visual schedules, and providing clear instructions can help them understand expectations and feel more secure.
  • Visual Supports: Visual supports, such as visual schedules, social stories, and visual cues, can enhance communication and comprehension during play. These supports provide visual representations of concepts, steps, or expectations, helping children with autism understand and participate in play activities.

By understanding autism and its impact on play, caregivers and professionals can create meaningful play experiences for children on the autism spectrum. Through tailored play, children with autism can develop essential skills and enjoy the benefits of play in a way that suits their unique needs and abilities.

Creating a Playful Environment

To effectively engage and play with an autistic child, it is important to create a playful environment that takes into consideration their unique needs and preferences. By considering sensory considerations, organization and structure, and incorporating visual supports, you can foster a positive and enjoyable play experience.

Sensory Considerations

Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities or differences, so it is important to create a sensory-friendly play environment. Here are some considerations to keep in mind:

  • Noise: Minimize loud or sudden noises that may overwhelm the child. Use soft or calming background music, or play in a quiet area.
  • Lighting: Adjust the lighting to reduce harsh or flickering lights. Natural light or soft, dim lighting can create a more comfortable environment.
  • Textures: Provide a variety of textures for tactile exploration. Consider using sensory-friendly materials such as soft fabrics, smooth surfaces, or textured toys.
  • Smells: Be mindful of strong or unfamiliar smells that might distract or bother the child. Opt for neutral or familiar scents if possible.

Organization and Structure

Autistic children often benefit from a structured and organized play environment. Consider the following tips:

  • Clear boundaries: Clearly define the play area using visual markers or physical boundaries to help the child understand where the play is taking place.
  • Predictability: Establish consistent routines and play patterns to provide a sense of predictability and familiarity. This can help the child feel more comfortable and engaged.
  • Visual schedules: Use visual schedules or timetables to outline the play session, indicating what activities will take place and in what order. This visual support can enhance understanding and reduce anxiety.

Visual Supports

Visual supports are an effective way to enhance communication and understanding during play. Consider the following strategies:

  • Visual cues: Use visual cues such as pictures, symbols, or written words to support communication and reinforce instructions or expectations.
  • Social stories: Create or use social stories that depict common play scenarios, social interactions, or expected behaviors. These stories can help the child understand and navigate social situations.
  • Visual prompts: Provide visual prompts or step-by-step instructions to guide the child through play activities. This can help them follow along and understand the sequence of actions.

By creating a playful environment that takes into account sensory considerations, organization and structure, and visual supports, you can provide an engaging and enjoyable play experience for your child with autism. Remember to be patient, flexible, and attuned to their individual needs and preferences.

Play Strategies for Autistic Children

When engaging in play with an autistic child, it's important to consider strategies that cater to their unique needs and interests. By incorporating special interests, using visual and social stories, and engaging in structured play activities, you can create an inclusive and enjoyable play experience for the child.

Incorporating Special Interests

Autistic children often have specific interests that captivate their attention and provide a sense of comfort. Incorporating these special interests into play can help create a meaningful connection and foster engagement. For example, if a child is interested in cars, you can incorporate toy cars into play sessions, creating scenarios and narratives around their interest. By tapping into their passions, you can motivate and encourage active participation.

Using Visual and Social Stories

Visual and social stories can be valuable tools for communication and understanding during play sessions. These stories use visual aids, such as pictures or drawings, to depict a sequence of events and social cues.

They help autistic children comprehend and anticipate what will happen next, reducing anxiety and facilitating engagement. Prior to the play session, create a visual or social story that outlines the play activity, step-by-step. This visual support will help the child grasp the concept and expectations, creating a sense of structure and familiarity.

Structured Play Activities

Autistic children often thrive in an environment that offers structure and predictability. Engaging in structured play activities can help provide a clear framework and promote engagement. Consider creating a schedule or visual timetable that outlines the different play activities planned for the session.

This visual support helps the child understand what to expect and transition smoothly between activities. Breaking down the play session into smaller, manageable tasks can enhance their focus and enjoyment. Additionally, incorporating play therapy techniques, such as using play therapy toys or interactive play, can further enhance the child's experience.

By incorporating special interests, using visual and social stories, and engaging in structured play activities, you can create a positive and inclusive play experience for an autistic child. It's essential to tailor these strategies to the child's individual needs and preferences. Remember to be patient, flexible, and celebrate small victories during the play sessions.

Communication and Engagement

When playing with an autistic child, effective communication and engagement strategies are essential to create a meaningful and enjoyable play experience. Here are some techniques to foster communication and engagement with autistic children:

Non-Verbal Communication Strategies

Non-verbal communication plays a vital role in engaging with autistic children. Since some children with autism may have challenges with verbal communication, it's important to incorporate non-verbal strategies to facilitate interaction. Some effective non-verbal communication strategies include:

  • Visual Supports: Use visual aids such as pictures, symbols, or visual schedules to enhance understanding and provide structure during play. Visual supports can help the child anticipate and navigate through play activities.
  • Gestures and Body Language: Utilize gestures, facial expressions, and body language to convey messages and enhance communication. For example, using simple hand gestures or pointing can help direct the child's attention to specific objects or actions during play.
  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Tools: AAC tools such as picture communication boards or speech-generating devices can aid in communication for non-verbal or minimally verbal children. These tools provide alternative ways to express needs, preferences, and engage in play interactions.

Encouraging Social Interaction

Promoting social interaction is crucial for the development of social skills in autistic children. Here are some strategies to encourage social interaction during play:

  • Turn-Taking: Encourage turn-taking during play activities to foster social reciprocity. Model taking turns and provide visual cues or timers to support the child's understanding of when it is their turn and when it is someone else's turn.
  • Peer Play: Facilitate opportunities for the child to engage in play with peers or siblings. Peer play can enhance social skills and provide valuable opportunities for social interaction and shared experiences.
  • Joint Attention: Engage the child in joint attention activities where you both focus on the same object or activity. This can be done by pointing out interesting objects, using engaging toys or activities, and providing descriptive narratives to capture the child's attention.

Following the Child's Lead

To promote engagement and build a positive play experience, it's important to follow the child's lead during play. Autistic children may have specific interests or preferences, and allowing them to guide the play can foster a sense of autonomy and motivation. By observing and joining in on the child's preferred activities or topics of interest, you can create a more enjoyable and meaningful play session.

Remember, every autistic child is unique, and communication and engagement strategies may vary depending on individual needs and preferences. It's essential to be patient, flexible, and responsive to the child's cues and communication style. Celebrate small victories and progress made during play sessions, as this can encourage continued engagement and growth.

Tips for Successful Play Sessions

When engaging in play sessions with an autistic child, there are several strategies that can help create a positive and fulfilling experience. These tips emphasize the importance of patience, clear instructions, and celebrating small victories throughout the play session.

Patience and Flexibility

One of the key elements in playing with an autistic child is to approach the session with patience and flexibility. It's important to understand that the child may have unique ways of interacting and may require additional time to process information or respond to prompts. Allow the child to set the pace and be sensitive to their individual needs. By being patient and flexible, you create a safe and supportive environment for the child to explore and engage in play.

Providing Clear Instructions

Clear instructions are essential when playing with an autistic child. Use concise and simple language to communicate your expectations and guide the child through the play activity. Break down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable steps, providing clear instructions for each step.

Visual supports, such as visual schedules or written instructions, can also be helpful in reinforcing verbal instructions and improving comprehension. Remember to use positive and encouraging language to motivate the child throughout the play session.

Celebrating Small Victories

In the course of playing with an autistic child, it's important to celebrate the small victories that occur. These victories can come in various forms, such as following a direction, trying a new activity, or engaging in social interaction. Recognize and acknowledge these achievements, no matter how small they may seem. Celebrating these moments can boost the child's confidence, encourage continued participation, and enhance the overall enjoyment of the play session.

By incorporating patience, clear instructions, and celebrating small victories, you can create a positive and engaging play environment for an autistic child. Remember that every child is unique, and it may take time to discover the strategies that work best for them.


As we wrap up our guide on how to play with your child with autism, let's not see it as an endpoint but as the beginning of a beautiful journey. Beyond the strategies and tips lies a canvas of connection, laughter, and shared moments that make playing with your child a deeply human experience.

In the realm of play and autism, it's not about perfection; it's about presence. It's about creating spaces where joy and understanding can flourish, where the language of play becomes a bridge that transcends differences.

So, let's conclude not with a checklist but with an invitation to embark on a journey of play that celebrates the unique spirit of your child, fostering bonds that go beyond the ordinary. Here's to the magical moments ahead, where play becomes a language of love, connection, and shared smiles.