Make Playtime Fun and Therapeutic for Autistic Children

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.

Father and daughter playing with dinosaur toys in her bedroom

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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.​

Why It Is So Hard to Play With an Autistic Child

While some adults find it easy to play with children in general, many are not quite sure how to engage with a little one. Typical children help adults out by actively asking them to "play horsey," or "throw the ball," or otherwise take part in play. Autistic children, however, may bring nothing to the adult. In fact, it's up to the adult to figure out how to engage with and communicate with a child who may not have any obvious interest in playing. As a result:

  • 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, such as 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.


Even if play doesn't come naturally to you, you can use some of these tried and true techniques to grab your child's attention and have fun together.

  1. If you're having trouble getting your child's attention away from a "preferred" activity (opening and closing a door, lining objects up, etc.), the best solution is to join your child in the activity. Once you have their attention, try varying the activity by (for example) adding a little challenge or moving an object out of line. Your child will need to come to you to continue doing what he enjoys, and that is the start of communication.
  2. 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.
  3. Bubbles are wonderful tools for engaging and play. Blow lots of bubbles quickly and then one big bubble slowly. Take turns.
  4. Puppets can often connect with children when humans can't. Using puppets of favorite characters can sometimes elicit surprisingly positive responses.
  5. 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.
  6. While kids with autism may have a tough time in free form 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.
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Article Sources
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  • Freeman S, et al. Parent-child interactions in autism: characteristics of play. Autism. 2013 Mar;17(2):147-61. doi:10.1177/1362361312469269

  • Strid K, et al. Pretend play, deferred imitation and parent-child interaction in speaking and non-speaking children with autism. Scand J Psychol. 2013 Feb;54(1):26-32. doi:10.1111/sjop.12003