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A Parent's Introduction to Play and Autism

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Updated May 02, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

If there's one issue that's shared by all young children with autism, it's difficulty with ordinary play skills. Little ones with autism may line up or stack toys, play by themselves and resist interaction with their peers, or simply spin, rock or otherwise spend time in their own world. It's this self-absorption that makes it so hard for autistic children to learn from imitation, socialize with other children, or connect with the adults in their lives.

In theory, parents can play a key role in actually teaching their autistic children to play. But while "playing with your child" sounds like a no-brainer, it can be very, very challenging for the parent of an autistic child.

What's so tough about playing with an autistic child?

  • It's not always easy to even capture the attention of an autistic child, or to hold their attention for more than a minute or so
  • Once engaged, a child with autism will often prefer to do the same things over and over again, and it can be hard to break the pattern
  • Children with autism will rarely bring their own ideas or energy to interactive play, so all the ideas and energy must come from the parent. This can be exhausting and frustrating.
  • The usual tools we use to engage children -- asking questions, offering suggestions, starting an intriguing activity -- may go right past the child with autism.
But all of these issues are nothing compared with parents' very real sense of hurt and sadness when their own child ignores them in favor of an internal world or object. Yes, most parents can get past a feeling of rejection to experiment with new ways of engaging and connecting. But when we reach out to our child and he ignores us, when we hug our child and she pulls away, when we engage our child and he appears oblivious, it's extraordinarily difficult to find the emotional energy to keep trying.

Another major hurdle is the sad reality that an awful lot of parents have forgotten how to just play. Sure, they can play board games or sports, but the idea of pretending to be someone or something they're not is no longer appealing. Most parents can just arrange play dates and stand back while their children run around and play. But parents with autistic kids don't have that luxury.

Even with support and information about "how to play with your autistic child," most parents feel a bit overwhelmed by the challenge. There are some easy ways to get started playing with your autistic child, as well as parent-led therapies to help you help your child to build play skills.

Tips for Playing with Your Autistic Child

  • Chase and tickle games can usually engage a reluctant youngster who isn't sure how to communicate verbally or respond in kind to a social overture.
  • Bubbles are wonderful tools for engaging and play. Blow lots of bubbles quickly and then one big bubble slowly. Take turns.
  • Puppets can often connect with children when humans can't. Using puppets of favorite characters can sometimes elicit surprisingly positive responses.
  • Water play can be a terrific way to have fun with a reluctant autistic playmate. Whether you're playing with a hose or in a pool, or just splashing in a tub or bucket of water, you can have a lot of wet fun without the need for conversation or competition.
  • While kids with autism may have a tough time in freeform play, they often find it easy to memorize scripts. You can build on this ability by reciting or singing together from a favorite TV show. Even if you're not "playing" in the usual sense, you can take turns, act out scenes, and even improvise together.
Parent-Led Therapies for Building Play Skills

Developmental therapies are geared specifically to providing parents with the tools to play with their autistic children -- and those therapies are not only tools for play, but also tools for communicative and cognitive growth. Floortime and RDI are both good options, as is the Hanen Program.

Developmental Therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Developmental therapies for Autism Spectrum Disorders work on autism's "core deficits" including problems with social and communication skills. They are tailored to the individual child, and are very often administered by parents. Floortime, RDI and Son-Rise are the top developmental therapies for autism. Learn more about developmental therapy and the different approaches. Are these techniques for you?

What Is Floortime?

Floortime, a form of therapeutic play, is the central feature of the DIR (Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based)therapeutic approach developed by Stanley Greenspan and Serena Weider. Read Dr. Greenspan's answer to the question "what makes floortime play different from ordinary play?"

Getting Started with Floortime

Floortime, a form of therapeutic play, is not only an important developmental treatment -- it's also a great way for parents to bond with their autistic children.

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI): A Treatment for Autism

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)is a relatively new approach to autism treatment. Developed by Dr. Steven Gutstein, its claim is that it addresses "core deficits" to vastly improve social/communication skills and flexible thinking.

The Hanen Program is offered through the Hanen Center in Ontario, but parents can access information about getting starting through two terrific books, Talkability and More Than Words, both by Fern Sussman.

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