Why Playing With Your Autistic Child Is Not Always Easy

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.

A mother having a tea party with her daughter
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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 to 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 practice symbolic interactions, build relationships, experience and manage emotions. But parents with autistic kids don't have that luxury.

There are developmental therapies 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 directions for parents to turn. But even with support and information about "how to play with your autistic child," most parents feel a bit overwhelmed by the challenge.

How do you play with your young child with autism? Have you found tools or tricks to keep yourself up and energized, and to keep the creative juices flowing?

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 is the central feature of the DIR (Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based) therapeutic approach developed by Stanley Greenspan and Serena Weider.

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) was developed by Dr. Steven Gutstein. Its claim is that it addresses "core deficits" to vastly improve social/communication skills and flexible thinking.

2 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. Greenspan SI, Wieder S. Engaging Autism: Using the Floortime Approach to Help Children Relate, Communicate, and Think. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Lifelong Books; 2006.

  2. Gutstein SE, Burgess AF, Montfort K. Evaluation of the relationship development intervention program. Autism. 2007;11(5):397-411. doi:10.1177/1362361307079603

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.