Autism And Play: How To Support Children

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Parents and educators often create goals for autism and play skills. Autistic children’s play skills develop differently than neurotypical play skills. This is not bad or wrong, it’s just different and that’s okay! Let’s explore the different types of toy play, and learn more about how to expand play skills for autistic children using visual supports.

The source for this information is the Hanen Centre in Ontario, Canada. They have a booklet series about play that is easy to read for both educators and parents. The booklets also provide action steps to take to expand on play skills for young autistic children. This blog post talks specifically about toy play. The booklet from the Hanen Centre about toy play is titled, “Take Out The Toys: Building Early Toy Play For Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder And Other Social Communication Difficulties“.

picture of a child lining up toy cars with the text "autism and play - how to support children"

Exploratory Play And Autism

With exploratory play, children use their senses to explore toys and objects. This might look like mouthing objects, shaking objects, and dropping toys to the ground. It can also include banging and looking at objects. Many autistic children spend more time in this stage than neurotypical children. The next step for exploratory play is banging two objects together, taking objects out of a container, or putting one object into another. This stage is also where those with a strong visual sense enjoy certain aspects of toys (the way the wheels of the car look when they spin or lining toys up). It can be hard to concentrate on other ways to play at this stage because this is their preferred way of exploring.

Many children come to us at the “taking out” and “dumping” stage of play. Instead of looking at this as “that’s not play”, let’s reframe our thinking. We can now look at it as an important stage of play. Find toys that can support this level of play. This crinkle tissue box is great for “taking out” actions and you can also play peek-a-boo. It’s super fun! One of the best toys for children at this stage is called the “Tot Tube“. You can drop anything that fits down it, and it has a clear section so kids can see what is going down. It’s so motivating and I love using it as a “ready…set….GO” activity.

When children start to explore “put in” activities, you can easily use plastic containers without the lid on to put things inside (blocks, puffballs, small objects). You can also purchase toys that are “put-ins”, such as the “Pia Fill And Spill Pinata” from Learning Resources, and Lakeshore Fill It Up Toy. To add in some fine motor skills, this dinosaur “put-in” activity is awesome! Also, this 4-in-1 play kit from Lakeshore has several “put-in” options for exploratory play.

image shows a small child's hand putting a wooden peg into a container with circular holes in the top.  The text says exploratory play.

Autism And One Step Play

The Hanen Centre calls this “single action functional play”. This stage of play begins with using cause-and-effect toys. This is also where children play with toys in the “expected” way. For example, pushing a toy car or putting the people in the toy bus. These skills often develop a little later in autistic children. They may start with one “action” with a toy, but have some difficulty adding in other actions. An example given by the Hanen Centre is when “they move the dumper up and down on the dump truck, but don’t push the truck or put objects in the back of the truck”. Again, this is not wrong, but it is our cue to help expand their play. At this stage, children don’t usually use words while playing or involve others in their play.

Some examples of cause-and-effect toys are toys with buttons, where you push the button and something pops up, or music plays. Another fun cause-and-effect toy that is not electronic is the “pop-up dinosaur” Montessori toy. When you move on to one-step play, the possibilities for toys to use are endless. Use anything that involves one action. This could be putting the people on the bus, pushing a car down a ramp, putting a baby doll in a crib, putting train tracks together, or putting play food on a plate.

image shows a farm toy set with farm animals and a cue card that has picture of "put the animals in the barn".  The text says "one step play".

Two Step Play

This stage is called “multi-action functional play” by the Hanen Centre. At this stage of play, the child combines two or more play actions on a number of different toys. For autistic children, these additional actions may need to be modeled and taught at the single action level. Then, they can be combined together at the multi-action level. Visual supports and video modeling can help with this!

For this stage, take everything you taught as one-step actions and combine the visuals to show the two steps together. This is where you show (with visual supports), “put the people in the bus, then push the bus”, “put the play food in the bowl, then stir”, or “push the car down the ramp, then up the elevator”.

the image is a cue card with clipart pictures showing "put the people in the bus" and "push the bus".  The text says "two step play".

Autism And Pretend Play

After children play with toys in an “expected”, functional way, they start to move to pretend play. They may start to use toys in an “unexpected” way, such as using a block for a phone. For autistic children, this may start out with some scripting or acting out scenes from favorite shows with toys. Then, more imaginative and creative play develops. This stage will most likely be delayed in autistic children as well.

How To Expand Play With Visuals

Visual supports can help so much when it comes to expanding play skills! They can be used to reference and model different skills as you are playing with a child. We know that many autistic children tend to be “visual learners”. Being able to reference visuals will help support play. For example, one-step play visuals will help show and teach a variety of one-step actions. This could be, “have the people stand in line for the bus”, “put the people in the bus”, “push the bus”, “take the people out of the bus”. You can take real pictures to show each of these steps, and then make cue cards out of them. You could use a pre-made set of one-step play action visuals for different themes. Start by modeling when you are playing with the child. Show the pictures and do the actions yourself. Then, you can start combining these one-step actions into two-step actions (put the people in the bus, then push the bus). Another tip is to start with toys the child is interested in!

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox.

a photo showing several visual supports for young children with autism

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