Pretend Play and Autism

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young girl pretend playing with dolls

Exploratory play, one step functional play and two step functional play are leading children on the path to pretend play! Before we dive into pretend play and autism, let’s review the stages of play. Want to listen to the podcast instead? Nurturing Pretend Play in Autistic Children

Exploratory Play

Exploratory play is the foundation upon which a child’s understanding of the world is built. During this stage, young autistic children engage in activities that involve sensory exploration and the manipulation of objects. These activities help them understand the characteristics and properties of objects in their environment.

For instance, a child might enjoy the sensory experience of squeezing a soft toy, shaking or banging toys, or feeling the texture of different fabrics.This is where we see a lot of our students dumping, mouthing or throwing objects. Exploratory play allows children to gather information about the world through their senses, laying the groundwork for future cognitive and motor skill development. See the list of Exploratory Toys for ideas!

One-Step Functional Play

As children progress, they transition into one-step functional play. This stage is characterized by some cause-and-effect activities and beginning to use toys or objects in the way they are intended to be used. For instance, a child may learn to press a button to make a toy light up or make a sound. They might push a car on the floor. Or, they might put the people in the bus. One-step functional play helps children understand cause-and-effect relationships, fostering problem-solving and language skills.

Two-Step Functional Play

In the two-step functional play stage, children take a step further by combining two actions in their play. This stage represents a significant cognitive leap, as children learn to manipulate objects in more intricate ways. For instance, a child may learn to place a ball on a ramp and then use a lever to propel the ball forward. This demonstrates their growing ability to plan and execute sequential actions, enhancing their cognitive and fine motor skills. Check out these Functional Play Toys!

pretend play in autistic children

Pretend Play

The next stage is pretend play, often referred to as imaginative or symbolic play. It involves using one object to symbolize another, so it involves more and more imagination.  Over time, pretend play also becomes more flexible. This imaginative leap is where language development flourishes.

The Hanen Centre explains pretend play using these 3 distinct stages:

Multi-Action Functional Stage:

   – In this stage, children take their first steps towards complex play interactions.

   – They combine two or more expected play actions together, a significant cognitive leap.

   – For example, a child may place a toy car at the top of a ramp, press a lever to send it down the ramp, and then carefully pick up the car and place it back at the starting point. This marks their entry into a world of multi-step, functional play.

Early Pretend Play:

   – During this stage, children start using toys in expected ways, mimicking daily activities.

   – They may engage in activities like pretending to eat play food or pretending to feed a doll with a spoon and bowl.

   – This stage introduces them to the concept of role-playing and imitation.

Using visual supports for these first two stages of pretend play can be so helpful! 

Later Pretend Play:

   – In the third stage, children ascend to a higher level of imaginative play.

   – They no longer need real or realistic objects to represent things; symbolic play becomes more prevalent.

   – Their play becomes more flexible, involving abstract objects in pretend scenarios.

   – For instance, they might use play dough to make birthday cakes or mold airplanes and pretend to fly them.

it's a lovely day to play quote

Pretend Play: Toy Recommendations

As children transition from multi-step functional play to early pretend play, selecting the right toys and activities can be instrumental in fostering their development. Below are some toy recommendations for helping children move from multi-step functional play to early pretend play:

Kitchen toys: feeding himself or a doll or stuffed animal using: real cups, toy cups, real straws, miniature straws, miniature toys utensils, miniature food; cooking using toy kitchen utensils, plates, cups, pots, and pans, 

Water: pretend it’s bath time with dolls or small figurines. Use a little dish soap to make bubbles, use a washcloth, and wash the figures. I did this in my classroom last year and it was a HIT! For some kids, I paired this activity, which was a small, shallow container with water and soap, along with a plastic doll and washcloth with the taking a bath song from Super Simple Songs. The video and music were an awesome way to really catch my students’ attention and increase imitation and engagement.  

Shopping Pretend Play: pretend to shop using a toy shopping cart and pretend food.  Basically, you can take a one-step “put in” activity…putting the food in the cart, and transform it into early pretend play. Add in a cash register for some extra fun.

Miniature playground sets: With these, we can encourage the beginning of pretend play by having figurines go down the slide or swing. I also like this little trampoline toy that I found. I’ve had so many students who are immediately able to imitate when I have a character jump on the trampoline!  

Themed Play with Figures: You can also use toys like a fire engine with figures (like Paw Patrol) to put in. You can model so much pretend play around a toy like that!

Doctors kit: Use a doctor’s kit with dolls or stuffed animals. This can be super fun and using visual supports and video modeling can help your students or child understand and imitate this type of play.

Pretend Play Toys

As you move toward the third stage of pretend play, add in substituting one object to represent another (a block as a car) and start to pretend with “invisible” objects. 

By understanding the progression from exploratory play through functional play and into the world of imaginative pretend play, parents, teachers, and speech/language pathologists can provide holistic support for the development of language and cognitive skills in young autistic children. Each stage builds upon the previous, and recognizing their significance is key to creating enriching learning environments.

“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning” – Diane Ackerman

If you’d like to read more about Autism and Play check out these blog posts!

Want to listen to podcasts related to this topic? Check out podcasts #10 and #11!

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. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

Visual supports starter set

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