The Reasons Autistic Children Play Differently

Children with autism often can't or won't play typical childhood games. Few children with autism play "like the other kids," and many engage in activities that look nothing like ordinary play.

This can make things difficult for parents as they try to find playdates and activities for their children. It can even be hard to figure out just how to play with your own child.

This article discusses what play looks like for kids with autism and how you can help them develop play skills with others.

A boy lining up his toy cars
Frida Marquez / Getty Images

How Autistic Play Is Different

Kids with autism play differently from other kids. From a very young age, they are likely to line objects up, play by themselves, and repeat actions over and over. They're also less likely to engage in games that require "make-believe," collaboration, or social communication.

Of course, many children without autism line up objects, play alone, or choose other activities over make-believe. But children with autism are apparently unaware of others' activities and preferences. Typically-developing children imitate their peers to learn new play skills, collaborate with others, and ask questions when they're confused.

Typically-developing children who play alone generally do so for a reason. They are capable of joining in when they're ready or encouraged to do so.

Children with autism may seem unaware of other children. They may appear to be unable to learn new play skills through observation or communication.

Here are some differences to watch for:

  • A preference for playing alone almost all the time. This can happen even when encouraged to participate in typical forms of play.
  • Inability or unwillingness to grasp basic rules of shared play. This may include turn-taking, role-playing, or following the rules of a sport or board game.
  • Engaging in activities that seem purposeless and repetitive. Examples include opening and closing doors, lining up objects, and flushing the toilet.
  • Inability or unwillingness to respond to friendly talk from adults or peers.
  • Seeming to be unaware of other children. Examples include wandering through a group without realizing they're playing or climbing on a slide without noticing kids standing in line.
  • Apparent inability to grasp the basics of symbolic play. This includes pretending to be someone else or pretending that a toy has human characteristics.

What Autistic Play Looks Like

While it is typical for toddlers to engage in solitary play from time to time, most graduate quickly to "parallel" play. This happens when more than one child is engaged in the same activity at the same time. For example, two children could be coloring in the same coloring book.

By the time they are 2 or 3 years old, most children are playing together. This could be sharing an activity or interacting to achieve a goal.

Toddlers with autism often get "stuck" in the earliest types of solitary play. They may engage in activities that have no apparent meaning or purpose.

Here are some scenarios that may sound familiar to parents with young children or toddlers on the autism spectrum:

  • A child stands in the yard and tosses leaves, sand, or dirt into the air over and over again.
  • A child completes the same puzzle repeatedly in the same way.
  • A child stacks objects in the same pattern and knocks them down or becomes upset if someone else knocks them down.
  • A child lines up toys in the same order again and again, with no apparent meaning to the chosen order.

As children with autism grow older, their skills improve. Some children have the ability to learn the rules of game-playing. When that happens, however, their behaviors are still a bit different from those of other children. For example, they may:

  • Become so rule-bound that they are unable to cope with necessary changes, like changing the number of players
  • Find it impossible to share games with other children (video games can become a solitary obsession)
  • Become extremely focused on a separate part of a game—for example, they might collect football statistics without actually following or playing the game of football

Why Is Play Difficult for Kids With Autism?

Why is it that children with autism play differently? Most are facing some daunting challenges that stand between them and typical social communication. Among these challenges are the following.

Lack of Imitation Skills

Typically-developing children watch how others play with toys and imitate them. For example, a typically-developing child might line up blocks the first time they play with them. But as soon as that child sees others build with the blocks, they will imitate that behavior.

A child with autism may not even notice that others are playing with blocks at all. They are very unlikely to observe others' behavior and imitate that behavior.

Lack of Symbolic Play Skills

Symbolic play is just another term for pretend play. By the age of 3, most children have developed fairly sophisticated tools for pretend play, both alone and with others.

They may use toys exactly as they're designed—playing "house" with a pretend kitchen and eating plastic food. Or they may make up their own pretend play, such as turning a box into a fortress.

Children with autism rarely develop pretend play skills without help. They may enjoy placing toy trains on a track. But they're unlikely to enact scenes or make sound effects unless they are actively taught and encouraged to do so.

Even when children with autism engage in symbolic play, they may repeat the same scenarios over and over again. They may use the same words and even the same tone of voice.

Lack of Social Communication Skills

To be successful in pretend play and imitation, typically-developing children actively interact and communicate with others. They also quickly learn how to "read" the intentions of other people.

Children with autism tend to have little desire or ability to communicate or engage with playmates. Peers may see this behavior as hurtful ("he's ignoring me!") or may simply ignore the child with autism. In some cases, children with autism may be bullied or excluded from a group.

Lack of Joint Attention Skills

Joint attention is a skill you use when you focus on something with another person. Examples include sharing a game together or looking at a puzzle together. It means thinking and working in a pair or group.

People with autism often have trouble with joint attention skills. While these skills can be taught, they may never develop on their own.

Recap

Children with autism have challenges with understanding the intentions of playmates. They also may not have the ability to focus with another child on a project, such as a puzzle or game.

Teaching Play Skills

If a lack of play skills is a possible symptom of autism, can you teach a child with autism to play? The answer, in many cases, is yes. In fact, several types of therapy focus largely on building play skills. Parents (and siblings) can take an active role in the process.

These types of therapy include:

  • The Floortime method: Relationship-based therapy that involves playing with the child at their level
  • Relationship Development Intervention (RDI): Focuses on activities to encourage social relationships
  • The PLAY Project: An early intervention program for parents and kids ages 18 months to 6 years
  • Naturalistic applied behavioral therapy: Therapy to encourage positive behaviors in the child's natural environment

All of these techniques can be applied by parents, therapists, or teachers, and all have the potential to be helpful. None, however, comes with any kind of guarantee. While some children with autism do develop solid play skills, others find the challenge too great.

For most parents, the best way to start is with the help of a therapist who can provide coaching and support.

Recap

Parents and siblings can take part in play therapy to help encourage positive behavior and build relationships with others.

Summary

Children with autism play differently than those who don't have autism. They often like to repeat actions over and over and line up objects, rather than playing pretend. They usually prefer to play alone and have challenges working together with others. Various types of therapy are available to help kids with autism and their families to play together and build relationships.

A Word From Verywell

Play may look different for your child with autism. You may feel frustrated if you're having trouble interacting with them during play sessions. Remember that each child develops at their own pace.

There are ways that you can help your child progress in being able to play with others. If you have any questions, reach out to your child's therapist.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What toys are good for a child with autism?

    Children with autism often enjoy sensory toys because they help them feel calm and engage their senses in a positive way. Sensory toys can include weighted stuffed animals, fidget toys, and putty. When looking for a toy for a child with autism, keep in mind their interests and their developmental stage.

  • Why do kids with autism often line up their toys?

    One of the symptoms of autism is restricted, repetitive behavior. This includes practices like lining up toys or touching objects repeatedly in the same order.

Was this page helpful?
7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Correction and republication: Prevalence and characteristics of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 Years - Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 sites, United States, 2012. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2018;67(45):1279. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6745a7

  2. Scott HK, Cogburn M. Peer play. In: StatPearls.

  3. Malhi P, Singhi P. A retrospective study of toddlers with autism spectrum disorder: Clinical and developmental profile. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2014;17(1):25-9. doi:10.4103/0972-2327.128537

  4. Medavarapu S, Marella LL, Sangem A, Kairam R. Where is the evidence? A narrative literature review of the treatment modalities for autism spectrum disordersCureus. 2019;11(1):e3901. doi:10.7759/cureus.3901

  5. The PLAY Project. About the PLAY project.

  6. Autism Speaks. What is a sensory toy and how do they help?

  7. Autism Speaks. What are the symptoms of autism?

Additional Reading