Four Steps to Better Play

May 24, 2018


Have you ever tried to join your child with autism in play and they: a) ignore you, b) tell you ‘no,’ or c) grab the toy back from you? This has happened to me so many times. The good news is, there is a different way to play that will get you more “yesses” and fewer “nos” from your child with autism.


Kids with a autism tend to have fewer interest than other kids, and those interests may be very strong. So if your child only plays with a few toys, it might be hard to capture their attention with a new activity. This is the child who simply ignores you as you try to get them to play with you

Another feature of autism is the tendency to form strong routines. The challenge is, once a routine is formed, it can become rigid and be tough to change. So if your child has a routine around their toys (even a simple routine, like putting the circle in the shape sorter over and over), it might frustrate them if you jump in and change it. This is the child who takes the toy back from you, or tells you no.

If you want to work on playing together with your child but they don’t like for you to touch their toys, you’ll have the most success if you start with an activity your child enjoys, but not their favorite toy, as it might be subject to the most rigid routines.

Imitation can be a difficult skill for many kids with autism. When we teach kids to play, we typically rely heavily on having them imitate us. We don’t want to teach our kids with autism to imitate by always saying “Do this!” or “Imitate me!” Then they might not learn to imitate when we aren’t there saying those things.

Instead, we want to teach our kids to watch others with interest and copy new actions without being prompted.  Playing in the following way can help your child pay more attention to what you are doing and learn to imitate you you ever telling them to.



Adapted from the Early Start Denver Model


1. Join in with what your child is doing.  Rather than jumping in with a brand new activity, meet your child where they are. If they are playing trains, grab a train and join in. Try to get face to face with your child, at a distance that is comfortable for them. If your child doesn’t let you grab a toy, you’ll skip to step three.


2. Imitate your child. Just do what they’re doing. They’ll be so much more interested in playing together when they see that they are running the show. So if your child’s train is racing down the track, join in race your train too. Or if they are stacking blocks, make your own matching stack in front of them.


3. Narrate the play. As you imitate your child, describe what they are doing. You can say, “our trains are racing down the tracks.” Or if your child doesn’t use a lot of language, just use one or two words or a sound effect, “Vroom!”  For the child stacking blocks, you can count them, name the colors, or say “boom!” each time they put a block on.


You’ll notice you want to make commands “Hey do this!” and ask questions, “Is your train going fast?” For this new way of playing, try not to ask questions or make any suggestions. Just imitate your child and describe what they are doing.


4. At the right moment, try something new. Wait until your child notices you imitating them and looks at you. That is your opportunity to change the play!


Describe what you are doing without asking your child to try it (remember, no commands!). You can say, “My train is flying!”  Or you can take the blocks and drop them into a new container “plop!”


If your child loses interest, go back to step 2. Eventually, your child will probably imitate you back! But keep dancing back and forth by imitating them and narrating the play to keep their interest.




When most adults play with children, we ask lots of questions and make many commands. “Is it flying?” “Make it do this!” “Is your train blue?” “Can you make it go fast?” When this works, it’s not a problem. But for many kids with autism, this way of playing doesn’t always make sense to them.


Setting aside the questions and commands and playing in a new way may get you more “yesses” and less “nos.” It can also help your child learn to watch others and to imitate back and forth, without someone having to say “do this!”




While this way of playing may sound simple, many parents (and therapists in training!) find it really challenging to pause all of the questions and suggestions and simply join into a child’s world. 


Changing how you play takes lots of practice! But it doesn’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to do it every time you play with your child. Even taking a few steps towards a new way of playing may open a door for your child.


If you find that you’re still struggling, find an OT or speech therapist who understands autism and ask them to help you learn how to have better playtime with your child.


If you want help playing with your child with autism, reach out today for a free consultation. I offer in-home OT in Asheville, NC.






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