One common characteristic of most children with autism is their inability to play with toys. Toddlers will often explore toys with their mouths and by throwing. This is the first step in play development. Pretend play is a more advanced form of play that usually develops later. This type of play is important because it helps develop other skills like imagination, creativity, language and social skills. Pretend play becomes a safe way for children to explore their feelings, ideas and environment. This type of play, however, will not develop on its own in children with autism. Like many other skills, it must be directly taught.
Start with Individual Figures First
Many children with autism are naturally attracted to the many play figures they see on television. Follow the child’s lead when buying play figures.
In the beginning a child might only carry the figurine around. This is fine because from there you can progress to setting up scenes and posing the figures.
Start by sitting the figurine in a chair, lying it on a play bed as if asleep, sitting it at a play table to eat or putting it inside a play car. Make the figurine do the same familiar activities that the child does-eating, sleeping, sitting in a car or watching television. Model the play behavior for the child to imitate.
Once the child is familiar with the figurines, playsets can be introduced. There are many different playsets available. There are pirate ships, western towns, castles, farms, houses and schools to name a few. If able to, let the child choose his favorite. If the child is not interested in any playset in particular then something which he/she can relate to should be chosen, like a house.
According to Melinda J. Smith, M. D. in her book Teaching Playskills to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder [DRL Books, 2001], ” playsets are easy to play with because the setting is fixed and obvious things to do are built into them”.
Many parents find it difficult to come up with imaginary scenes to act out with the playsets and figurines. Having a playscript made beforehand can help keep the pretend play flowing. The playscripts do not have to be complicated and can even be copied from favorite television programs, books or movies.
Playscripts can even be illustrated so the child sees the sequence of events and follows them. Parents can model for a while and then prompt the child to do the same. There should be no strict rules to follow.
Monitor Strange Behavior
The only thing to watch out for is strange behavior like toy banging, throwing toys or repetitive actions like opening and closing doors. Often children will become excited while playing and stims (common stereotypical behaviors seen in children with autism) can increase. Redirecting this type of behavior is best until the child stops doing it.
Play helps children develop many skills which is why it is important for children with autism to be able to engage in some form of play. Through play, parents can continue to teach their children language, social and even academic skills. Play is a child’s work and should not be neglected.