Most of us learn the act of play from a very early age. Whether it’s with siblings, a favorite toy, or the family pet, we are instinctively drawn to the desire to have fun.

But play is more than just fun and games; it’s a critical component of a child’s development and can affect their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

For children with autism, how they learn to play - or even what the concept of “play” looks like, might be very different from their peers without ASD, and they may require additional teaching and support from their families or professionals.

Here are four simple techniques you can use to teach and encourage play with your child:

1. Less talk, more action: Getting closely involved with the play activity allows you to engage with the child “based on the child’s interests and actions.” It’s less about teaching and instruction (which feels like the opposite of play anyway!) and more about connecting with them on an emotional level and learning what brings them joy.

2. Stock your toolkit: Sensory toys can make all the difference for children with ASD. These are generally items that light up, make sounds, have weight, or a texture like kinetic sand or play-dough. A sensory toy can stimulate their senses and give them something tangible to focus on.

3. Be a copycat: Studies have shown that parents who imitate their child’s level of play will experience longer play sequences. Instead of forcing them in a specific direction, allow them to take the lead and imitate their version of play.

4. Mix things up: Create opportunities for playdates, experiment with different activities, and spend time in new locations. The chance to experience new things - good or bad - is essential for development. It may feel “safer” to always go to the same park and play with the same friend and play with the same toys because you know that’s what they like. But they might like something else; you won’t know until you try.

Remember, play should feel fun. Yes, it’s critical for the reasons shown above, but if play begins to feel like a chore or feels forced and unenjoyable, neither you nor your child will benefit. And where’s the fun in that?

Play skills do not come naturally for many children with autism. So, it will be up to the adults in their lives to help them to build play skills. This can be done a variety of ways.  Most importantly, it will be essential to keep it fun.  Be sure to make it feel like play and not like work. Many times, the play will need to be taught directly and intentionally using age appropriate items, when possible. These worksheets offer ideas for teaching play skills. This resource puts a twist on teaching play development by having students complete an interactive journal about play skills. It is crucial to build a rapport at first so that you can make the play time as fun and interactive as possible. Remember that “free time” is not usually helpful to children on the spectrum who are not yet skilled at managing their own time or skilled at playing games. Also remember, some sort of structure is required for children without these skills to be successful at play. 

Resources for play skills:


A few things to keep in mind while teaching play skills or trying to improve interaction skills:

  • Free time is a difficult concept for some children with autism. 

  • Remember you will have to teach play skills.  They do not come naturally for many children with autism.

  • Teach the play skills 1:1 first, then incorporate them into a group setting (Moyes, 1997).

  • Use age appropriate games and toys to the extent possible.  If a seven year old without autism likes the game, chances are, your seven year old will have some interest in it too.  You may just have to modify the presentation a little.

  • Find a way to make the game or activity “do-able” for him or her.

  • Have fun.  Your child should want to come to this play area.  If you are not having fun, they are probably not having fun.

  • Try something new like, roller skating (start on a rug or carpet first), tennis, baseball, t-ball, soccer or bowling.

  • Follow your child’s lead and comment on what he or she is interested in. Try not to get too consumed in your own idea of what play should look like.  Focus on the act of attending to the same item at the same time, sharing the same space and being on the “same page”, more than having him or her “play” with the toy in the exact manner for which it was made.

  • If you are going to play, then play.  Try not to drill your child on colors and shapes and numbers, etc. during the play time.  It is okay to comment on these concepts, but keep the play fun and engaging and the opposite of work time. 

  • Find a method to teach the skills they need.  You are the facilitator.  During the beginning stages, try not to leave him/her to “play on his/her own.”



Worksheets for play skills:

Play is challenging to teach since it comes natural to most children. The idea of having to break down the play skills is unique. Teaching interaction skills is not usually something that teachers learn when preparing for the teaching profession.  However, there is a large need for professionals to have this skill and/or be able to help parents to foster this skill as well (by providing tips, ideas and support.)

Educators and parents can h
elp students develop play skills in a number of ways:

  • Use toys that have a clear cause and effect component
  • Teach the rules to games
  • Practice turn-taking
  • Model making comments in play
  • Directly teach game skills, playground skills, and outside skills 


              See more about these Play Skills Printables here.

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