How Do Children with Autism Play?

Experts agree that play is a vital part of a child’s development. Play during early childhood helps children to develop gross and fine motor skills, and can help them to learn basic academic concepts. Play is also integral in helping children to learn social skills, such as empathy, cooperation, and collaboration.

How is play affected when a child has autism?

Kathy Ralabate Doody, associate professor of exceptional education at SUNY Buffalo State, and Jana Mertz, program coordinator at the Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, observed children with autism to determine which play options were most attractive to them. The research was conducted at Explore and More children’s museum during their monthly “Au-some Evening” event, when the museum is specifically open to families of children with autism.

The most popular exhibit was “Climbing Stairs”, where the child was able to climb a set of stairs and drop a ball from the top. A spinning windmill and a rice table were also quite popular. The children tended to avoid exhibits that required pretend play, which requires an understanding of Theory of Mind, the ability to see oneself in another’s place. This concept is difficult for people with autism.

“Children with ASD choose to engage in play that provided strong sensory feedback, cause and effect results, and repetitive motions,”

said Doody. The senses include sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing, along with the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. The vestibular system helps us keep our balance, and lets us know where our bodies are in space. Proprioception is the way our joints respond to movement and pressure. Most children with autism also have sensory issues, which can affect any of these senses. Toys that offer certain sensory feedback can help children with autism compensate for weaknesses in their own sensory systems.

Studying the preferred play habits of children with autism gives researchers important information that can be useful in many ways. Preferred activities can be used as reinforcers for behavioral therapies such as ABA. These activities can also offer a child with autism sensory stimulation, which can ease the nervous system and help the child to be more attentive for a short time. Understanding a child’s preferred play activities can also help researchers develop other games and therapies designed to expand the child’s skills in to more advanced forms of play, such as pretend and cooperative play. Understanding how children with autism play is also helpful to parents, who can use the information to provide activities their child can do independently.

Doody would like to see ASD-friendly play options built into public playgrounds and recreational facilities. Including these types of activities will encourage children with autism to participate, and offers typically developing children a way to interact with them in a non-classroom setting. Children with autism may be more likely to play with other children if they are doing an activity that appeals to them, which can help them to expand into more advanced forms of play.