How to Play with Your Child with Autism?

If you're a parent of a child with autism, you know that playtime can be challenging. However, with the right approach, playtime can also be a fun and rewarding experience for both you and your child.

Alan Hollander
January 20, 2024

How to Play with Your Child with Autism?

If you're a parent of a child with autism, you know that playtime can be challenging. However, with the right approach, playtime can also be a fun and rewarding experience for both you and your child.

Understanding Autism

To effectively support children with autism, it is crucial to have a solid understanding of what autism is, the challenges faced by children with autism, and the importance of play in their development.

What is Autism?

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior. It is a complex condition with a wide range of symptoms and varying degrees of severity. Some common characteristics of autism include difficulties in social communication, repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, and a preference for routine.

Challenges Faced by Children with Autism

Children with autism face unique challenges in various aspects of their lives. These challenges can manifest in different ways depending on the individual, but some common difficulties experienced by children with autism include:

  • Social Interaction: Children with autism often struggle with understanding social cues, making eye contact, and engaging in reciprocal conversation. They may find it challenging to form and maintain friendships.
  • Communication: Language and communication difficulties are common among children with autism. Some may have delayed speech development, while others may have difficulty using and understanding nonverbal communication, such as gestures and facial expressions.
  • Sensory Sensitivities: Many children with autism have heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as loud noises, bright lights, or certain textures. These sensitivities can impact their ability to engage in activities and participate in their environment.
  • Repetitive Behaviors and Restricted Interests: Children with autism may engage in repetitive behaviors, such as repetitive movements or fixation on specific objects or topics. They may have intense interests in certain subjects and struggle with flexible thinking and adapting to changes.

The Importance of Play in Autism

Play is a vital aspect of a child's development, and it holds special significance for children with autism. Play provides opportunities for learning, social interaction, and self-expression. It allows children with autism to explore their environment, develop new skills, and practice social and communication abilities in a natural and enjoyable setting.

For children with autism, play can help:

  • Foster Social Skills: Through play, children with autism can learn and practice social skills, such as turn-taking, sharing, and cooperation. It provides them with a safe space to interact with others and understand the dynamics of social relationships.
  • Enhance Communication Abilities: Play encourages communication, both verbal and nonverbal. It offers children with autism the chance to express themselves, improve their language skills, and understand the power of communication in various contexts.
  • Develop Cognitive and Motor Skills: Play activities can support the development of cognitive abilities, problem-solving skills, and fine and gross motor skills. It stimulates their creativity, imagination, and critical thinking.
  • Promote Emotional Regulation: Engaging in play can help children with autism regulate their emotions, manage stress, and cope with sensory sensitivities. It provides an outlet for self-expression and helps them develop emotional resilience.

Understanding the unique challenges faced by children with autism and recognizing the importance of play in their development lays the groundwork for effective support and intervention. By incorporating play therapy techniques tailored to the needs of children with autism, we can create a nurturing and inclusive environment that promotes their growth and well-being.

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Introduction to Play Therapy

Play therapy is a valuable approach that supports children with autism in their development and overall well-being. This section will provide an introduction to play therapy, discuss its role in supporting children with autism, and highlight the benefits it offers.

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a therapeutic approach that utilizes play as a means of communication and expression for children. It provides a safe and structured environment where children can engage in play activities that are specifically designed to address their unique needs and challenges.

Through play, children are encouraged to explore, create, and interact, allowing them to express their thoughts, emotions, and experiences in a natural and comfortable way. Play therapy is conducted by trained professionals who use various techniques to facilitate the child's growth, development, and healing.

The Role of Play Therapy in Supporting Children with Autism

Play therapy plays a vital role in supporting children with autism by addressing the specific challenges they face. Children with autism often experience difficulties in social interaction, communication, sensory processing, and emotional regulation. Play therapy provides a structured and supportive environment where these challenges can be addressed in a playful and engaging manner.

By incorporating therapeutic play techniques, play therapy helps children with autism develop essential skills and overcome barriers to their development. It allows them to practice social interaction, improve communication abilities, enhance sensory integration, and learn emotional regulation strategies. Through play therapy, children with autism can build confidence, self-esteem, and a better understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Benefits of Play Therapy for Children with Autism

Play therapy can be a powerful tool for children with autism to develop communication, social skills, and emotional regulation. Through play, children can express themselves in a safe and non-threatening environment while building relationships with their therapists or parents.

One benefit of play therapy is that it allows children to communicate in their own way. Children with autism may have difficulty with verbal communication, but through play, they can express themselves through actions and behaviors. This can help them feel heard and understood while also building their confidence in communicating with others.

Another benefit of play therapy is that it can help children build social skills. Through play, children learn how to take turns, share, and engage in reciprocal communication. They also learn how to read social cues and understand the perspectives of others.

Play therapy can also help children regulate their emotions. Through sensory activities or calming exercises like deep breathing or yoga poses, children can learn how to identify their emotions and respond appropriately when they feel overwhelmed.

Types of Play Therapy Techniques

Play therapy offers a variety of techniques that can be tailored to meet the unique needs of children with autism. These techniques help facilitate engagement, communication, and skill development. Here are four common types of play therapy techniques used in supporting children with autism:

Structured Play

Structured play involves providing a clear and organized play environment with specific goals and activities. This type of play therapy technique offers predictability and consistency, which can be comforting for children with autism. Structured play sessions often follow a predetermined routine and incorporate specific toys or materials to target specific skills or behaviors.

Sensory Play

Sensory play focuses on engaging a child's senses through various materials and activities. It encourages exploration, self-regulation, and sensory integration. Sensory play therapy may involve using items such as sand, water, playdough, or textured objects to stimulate different senses and promote sensory processing and modulation.

Pretend Play

Pretend play, also known as imaginative play, involves creating and acting out imaginary scenarios. This type of play therapy technique encourages creativity, social interaction, and problem-solving skills. Pretend play can be facilitated through props, costumes, and role-playing activities that allow children to express themselves, explore social situations, and practice social skills.

Social Play

Social play focuses on building social skills and promoting peer interaction and cooperation. This type of play therapy technique involves engaging children in activities that encourage joint play, turn-taking, sharing, and collaboration. Social play can be facilitated through structured games, group activities, or guided interactions to foster social engagement and develop social communication skills.

By incorporating these play therapy techniques, children with autism can benefit from structured and engaging play experiences that support their development, communication, and social interactions. It's important to adapt these techniques based on the child's individual needs and preferences, allowing for a personalized and effective play therapy approach.

Creating a Play Therapy Environment

When engaging in play therapy with children on the autism spectrum, creating an environment that is safe, sensory-friendly, and conducive to learning is essential. This section will explore three important aspects of creating a play therapy environment: designing a safe and sensory-friendly space, selecting appropriate toys and materials, and establishing routines and visual supports.

Designing a Safe and Sensory-Friendly Space

Designing a safe and sensory-friendly space is crucial in facilitating a positive play therapy experience for children with autism. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Safety: Ensure that the play area is free from hazards and potential dangers. Remove any sharp objects or choking hazards and secure furniture or equipment to prevent accidents.
  2. Sensory elements: Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities. Create a calming environment by controlling brightness and noise levels. Consider using dim lighting, soft colors, and soundproofing materials to reduce sensory overload.
  3. Comfort: Provide comfortable seating or floor mats to accommodate the child's sensory preferences. Some children may benefit from using weighted blankets, fidget toys, or sensory cushions for added comfort and sensory input.

Selecting Appropriate Toys and Materials

Choosing the right toys and materials is essential for promoting engagement and learning in play therapy sessions. Here are some guidelines for selecting appropriate options:

  1. Age and Developmental Level: Select toys and materials that are suitable for the child's age and developmental stage. Consider their cognitive abilities, fine and gross motor skills, and interests when choosing toys that will capture their attention and support their learning.
  2. Sensory Considerations: Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities or preferences. Choose toys that provide a range of sensory experiences, such as toys with different textures, sounds, or movements. Sensory-friendly materials like playdough, kinetic sand, or textured balls can be beneficial.
  3. Open-Ended Toys: Opt for toys that encourage imagination and creativity. Open-ended toys, such as building blocks, puzzles, or art supplies, allow children to explore and express themselves in various ways. These toys promote problem-solving skills, fine motor development, and social interaction.

Establishing Routines and Visual Supports

Routines and visual supports play a crucial role in creating predictability and structure during play therapy sessions. Here are some strategies to consider:

  1. Consistent Structure: Establish a consistent routine for play therapy sessions. Consistency helps children with autism feel secure and understand what to expect. Begin and end sessions with predictable rituals to provide a sense of closure.
  2. Visual Schedules: Visual schedules help children understand the sequence of activities and transitions during play therapy. Use visual supports, such as picture schedules or visual timers, to provide visual cues and support comprehension.
  3. Visual Communication: Some children with autism may have difficulty with verbal communication. Use visual supports, such as visual aids or communication boards, to enhance communication and understanding. These tools can facilitate expressive and receptive language skills during play.

Creating a well-designed play therapy environment with safety measures, appropriate toys and materials, and visual supports sets the stage for successful and beneficial play therapy sessions for children with autism. By considering the unique needs and preferences of each child, therapists and parents can create an environment that supports engagement, learning, and growth.

Techniques for Engaging Children with Autism in Play

Engaging children with autism in play can be a rewarding and beneficial experience for both the child and their caregivers. Here are some effective techniques that can help facilitate meaningful play interactions with children on the autism spectrum.

Following the Child's Lead

One of the key strategies in play therapy for children with autism is to follow the child's lead. This involves observing and joining in on the activities and interests that capture the child's attention. By entering their world and participating in activities they enjoy, you can establish a connection and build trust, creating a more engaging play experience.

It's important to be flexible and adapt to the child's preferred play style. Some children may engage in repetitive behaviors or have specific rituals during play. Instead of trying to redirect or change their play, embrace their unique interests and find ways to incorporate them into play activities. This approach helps create a positive and comfortable environment for the child, fostering their engagement and participation.

Incorporating Special Interests

Many children with autism have specific interests that they are passionate about. These special interests can be utilized as a powerful tool for engagement during play therapy. Incorporating the child's special interests into play activities can capture their attention and motivation, making the play session more enjoyable and meaningful for them.

For example, if a child is fascinated by dinosaurs, you can incorporate dinosaur figurines into a pretend play scenario or use dinosaur-themed board games to encourage social interaction. By tapping into the child's interests, you can create a bridge between their world and the play therapy session, enhancing their engagement and facilitating learning.

Using Visual Supports and Communication Strategies

Visual supports and communication strategies are essential in play therapy for children with autism. These tools help provide structure, promote understanding, and enhance communication during play sessions.

Visual supports, such as visual schedules, visual cues, and visual timers, can help children with autism understand the sequence of play activities and transitions. They provide a visual representation that supports their comprehension and promotes independence.

Communication strategies, such as visual communication boards, picture exchange systems, and social stories, can facilitate communication and social interaction during play. These tools help children with autism express their wants, needs, and emotions, as well as understand social cues and expectations.

By incorporating visual supports and communication strategies into play therapy, you can create a supportive and inclusive environment that encourages active participation and promotes communication and social skills development.

Engaging children with autism in play requires a personalized and individualized approach. By following the child's lead, incorporating their special interests, and utilizing visual supports and communication strategies, you can create a meaningful and effective play therapy experience that supports their growth, development, and overall well-being.

Building Connections and Skills through Play Therapy

Play therapy offers a wealth of opportunities for children with autism to develop essential skills and build meaningful connections. Through various play therapy techniques, children can enhance their social skills, communication skills, and emotional regulation. Let's explore each of these areas in more detail.

Developing Social Skills

Children with autism often struggle with social skills, such as making eye contact, understanding social cues, and engaging in reciprocal conversations. However, there are various ways parents can help their child develop these skills during playtime.

One way to develop social skills is by practicing turn-taking during games or activities. This can help your child learn how to wait their turn and engage in reciprocal communication.

Another way to develop social skills is by playing games that involve social interaction, such as "Simon Says" or "Red Light, Green Light." These games can help your child learn how to follow directions and interact with others in a fun and engaging way.

Role-playing scenarios can also be an effective way to develop social skills. You can act out different situations with your child, such as ordering food at a restaurant or asking for help at the store. This can help your child learn how to interact with others in real-life situations.

Enhancing Communication Skills

Communication is a fundamental aspect of human interaction, and it can be especially challenging for children with autism. However, there are various ways parents can help their child enhance their communication skills during playtime.

One way to enhance communication skills is by using toys or objects that encourage verbal and nonverbal communication. For instance, playing with a ball can encourage your child to say "throw" or "catch," while playing with building blocks can help them practice spatial awareness and nonverbal communication.

Another way to enhance communication skills is by incorporating technology into playtime. There are many apps available that use visual aids and interactive games to help children with autism improve their communication skills. These apps can be customized based on your child's needs and preferences.

Using social stories or role-playing scenarios can also be an effective way to enhance communication skills. By acting out different situations and teaching your child how to respond appropriately, you can help them develop the necessary social and communication skills to interact with others effectively.

Promoting Emotional Regulation

Children with autism may have difficulty regulating their emotions and may become easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli or changes in routine. As a parent, you can help promote emotional regulation during playtime and daily routines.

One way to promote emotional regulation is by providing a structured and predictable routine. Children with autism thrive on routine and consistency, so having a set schedule for playtime, meals, and bedtime can help your child feel more secure and less anxious.

Another way to promote emotional regulation is by using calming activities during playtime. Activities like yoga poses, deep breathing exercises, or meditation can help your child learn to regulate their emotions and calm themselves down when they feel overwhelmed.

You can also use social stories or visual aids to teach your child about different emotions and how to express them appropriately. For example, you can create a social story about feeling angry or frustrated and include strategies for calming down like taking deep breaths or counting to 10.

Play Therapy at Home

Play therapy techniques can also be incorporated into daily routines at home to further support children with autism. By creating a nurturing and engaging environment, parents can continue to foster their child's development and strengthen the parent-child relationship. Here are some ways to incorporate play therapy techniques into daily routines:

Incorporating Play Therapy Techniques into Daily Routines

In addition to the tips and ideas mentioned above, incorporating play therapy techniques into your daily routines can be a helpful way to support your child's development. Play therapy is a form of therapy that uses play as a means of communication and expression.

One technique you can try is called "floor time," where you get down on the floor with your child and follow their lead in play. This can help build a stronger connection between you and your child, as well as encourage communication and social skills.

Another technique is using "social stories," which are short stories designed to teach social skills or behavior. You can create social stories with pictures or drawings to help your child understand different situations or behaviors.

You can also incorporate sensory activities into daily routines, such as taking a sensory break during homework time or using fidget toys during quiet time. These activities can help regulate your child's sensory system and improve focus and attention.

Collaborating with Therapists and Professionals

Collaboration with therapists and professionals is essential in supporting a child's progress. Parents can work together with therapists to integrate play therapy techniques into everyday activities. By sharing observations and discussing strategies, parents and professionals can ensure consistency in the child's therapy and reinforce learning outside of therapy sessions.

Nurturing the Parent-Child Relationship through Play

Play is a powerful tool for nurturing the parent-child relationship. By engaging in play with their child, parents can strengthen their bond and create a positive and supportive environment. Here are some tips for nurturing the parent-child relationship through play:

  • Set aside dedicated playtime each day to focus solely on the child. Eliminate distractions and give your full attention.
  • Follow the child's lead and join in their play. Let them take the lead and explore their interests.
  • Use play as an opportunity to communicate and connect with your child. Encourage conversation and engage in meaningful interactions.
  • Celebrate small victories and achievements during play to build your child's self-esteem and confidence.

Remember, every child is unique, and what works for one child may not work for another. It's important to observe and tailor play therapy techniques to suit your child's specific needs and preferences. With consistency, patience, and love, play therapy at home can provide valuable support and contribute to your child's overall development and well-being.


In conclusion, playing with your child with autism can be a fun and rewarding experience with the right approach. By understanding your child's needs and interests, being patient, and using positive reinforcement, you can create a positive and engaging playtime experience. Remember to always follow your child's lead and have fun!