3 Strategies to Help You Master Teaching Play to Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Autism and play

As OTs, we have an incredible opportunity to help our clients on the autism spectrum improve their play and leisure skills. We know how important play is for all kids, and many of us feel the immense responsibility of teaching play to our autistic clients when play just doesn’t come easily for them.

That pressure only intensified recently with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ new statement that highlighted the endless importance of play for the development of kids. The authors highlighted that even though play is incredibly relaxing and balancing for almost all children, kids on the spectrum actually experience a spike in their stress hormones when it’s time to play. Yikes.

The problem is, knowing how important teaching play is for our clients on the autistic spectrum doesn’t mean we feel competent and confident when we sit down to try to write our goals, plan our treatments, and actually teach new play skills to our young autistic clients.

Feeling Stuck on Teaching Play? I’ve So Been There

teaching play skills, autism, OT

When I started out as an OT in early intervention, I remember getting my first autistic client. He was an adorable two-year-old boy with a very involved mother. I’d worked with tons of two year olds in my career before becoming an OT, so I was feeling pretty excited. Mom wanted me to help her child learn some new play skills, and I confidently dove right in.

And then I quickly hit a wall. I realized that the child did not imitate, and that the only way I knew how to teach play (or really anything) was through modeling and imitation. I dug deep into the tool box in my head. There was nothing there that didn’t involve imitation. I was stumped. And mortified.

This wasn’t my only struggle with teaching play, but it was the first one. And it stuck with me.

I’ve since learned that many OTs struggle to teach our clients on the autism spectrum how to play. The lectures from grad school are hard to apply, and their content quickly fades from our memories. We try to piece together continuing education trainings, but we often feel like we are missing an important piece (or two, or five) of the picture.

We dive in and teach the things we know, but we still have this slightly icky feeling that we could be doing something more relevant, more meaningful, and more effective for our autistic clients.

The thing is, so many OTs feel this way. Kids on the spectrum think and learn differently, and we need a truly robust and specific set of tools in our OT tool box to really be able to teach our young autistic clients how to fill their play time without spiking their stress levels.

It’s totally possible to become effective at teaching kids on the autism spectrum how to play. Keep reading for the three most important strategies you need to know to start saying “yes” with confidence to teaching your autistic clients how to play in a way that will be meaningful, stress-free, and effective.

teaching play skills, autism, OT

Why You Should Learn to Teach Play

As I learned the hard way, trying to teach kids on the autism spectrum how to play without really good training can leave you feeling so discouraged. You might consider switching settings to avoid the challenge and hope that a more qualified therapist comes along to help your former clients learn to play. Or you might keep trucking along, nursing that icky feeling that you really aren’t equipped to teach this skill even though you know how important playing is for your young autistic clients.

You may find yourself focusing on the things you are good at teaching like fine motor skills and simply calling it “play” while hoping no one notices. Deep down you know that there is more to play than stacking and coloring, but it’s so hard to sort out where to start with writing a play goal and impossible to figure out what to do to teach play effectively. There seems to be no guidebook, so you simply turn away from being the one to teach your autistic clients to play.

Although many OTs fall into the routine of doing what they are good at and finding reasons not to do the rest, you can become excited about teaching play again by learning concrete, effective, autism-specific strategies.

For me, this took months (even years) of training and mentorship. But now when I write play goals, I write them with clarity and confidence. I teach parents the strategies they need to learn without hesitation. I teach therapists in my course, The Learn Play Thrive Approach to Autism, how they can obtain this confidence in teaching play. And I coach therapists one-on-one about how to overcome their play skills roadblocks.

In my own practice, I’ve come a long way since that awkward day in early intervention. Now, I teach play to kids who imitate and to kids who don’t. I teach pretend play and toy play, acting out play scenarios, symbolic play, and, for my older clients, leisure skills. I teach play at home and at school and at the park.

Now that I have relevant strategies in my toolbox, I absolutely love teaching kids on the autism spectrum how to play.

teaching play skills, autism, OT

Tip #1: Select the Right Play Goal

One reason therapists often feel unsuccessful teaching pl