Autism and playing: The same fact has remained steadfast across periods and countries—kids love playing. Play is an essential aspect of childhood development. It is a natural and spontaneous activity that brings children joy and contributes significantly to their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical growth.
For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), play holds a special significance. Challenges in communication, social interaction, sensory issues, and repetitive behaviors characterize autism. Many behavioral difficulties kids face on the spectrum translate to playing differently from neurotypical kids, struggling with communicating with others or telling stories with their toys. This incorrect belief can lead some to think that kids on the spectrum don’t love or benefit from playtime.
Play is a powerful tool for children with autism, enabling them to overcome challenges, develop essential skills, and reach their full potential. By embracing the therapeutic value of play, we can create inclusive and supportive environments where all children can thrive.
At ABA Centers of New Jersey, we specialize in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. This widely used intervention for children with autism recognizes the significance of play and incorporates it into therapy regimens to teach new skills effectively.
Engaging children with autism in play-based activities can facilitate their overall development and help them acquire essential skills. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, a widely used intervention for children with autism, recognizes the significance of play and incorporates it into therapy regimens to teach new skills effectively. This article will celebrate playtime and explain why autism and playing go hand in hand.
1. The Many Benefits of Play
Play is an enjoyable and self-motivated activity characterized by creativity and flexibility that children engage in for pleasure, learning, and exploration. Play can take various forms, including physical, imaginative, constructive, and social. Each type of play contributes to different aspects of a child’s development.
Play is crucial for the development of various skills in children. It fosters cognitive growth by enhancing problem-solving abilities, creativity, and imagination. When children engage in imaginative play, such as pretending to be characters or engaging in make-believe scenarios, they develop crucial cognitive skills, including abstract thinking, symbolic representation, and planning.
Play also plays a significant role in social and emotional development. Through play, children learn to interact with others, take turns, share, negotiate, and develop empathy. They practice social skills, such as understanding facial expressions, body language, and emotional cues. Play enables children to develop emotional regulation, express themselves, and cope with challenging situations.
Furthermore, play improves physical development by improving fine and gross motor skills, coordination, and body awareness. Running, jumping, and climbing helps children develop their muscles, balance, and coordination. Manipulating blocks or solving puzzles enhances fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
2. Developmental Milestones of Play
Play demarcates developmental milestones in children. Children engage in exploratory play during infancy, investigating objects, textures, and sounds. This form of play helps them develop sensory integration skills and spatial awareness.
As children grow, they engage in pretend symbolic play. This type of play involves creating imaginary scenarios and using objects to represent something else. This crucial milestone indicates the development of abstract thinking, language skills, problem-solving, and social understanding.
3. Autism and Playing
Children on the spectrum are unique and exhibit distinct characteristics in play behavior. These arise due to the social, communication, and sensory processing challenges they experience. Understanding these particularities can show how kids with ASD can benefit from play.
- Solo Play
Children with autism often engage in solitary play or play by themselves. They may prefer repetitive or stereotyped behaviors, focusing intensely on specific objects or activities. This type of play can involve lining up toys, spinning wheels, or engaging in repetitive movements.
Self-directed play behaviors serve several purposes for children with autism, like creating a predictable environment with no sensory disturbances. Kids with ASD also develop intense interests in specific topics, objects, or activities. Their solitary play may revolve around these focused interests, allowing them to explore and deepen their knowledge in their preferred areas.
Kids with ASD sometimes struggle to interpret social cues like facial expressions, body language, or nonverbal communication. Their preferences mean they don’t always get the most out of playing directly with other kids, preferring to play alongside them.
- Symbolic Play
Symbolic play, also known as pretend play or imaginative play, is an important developmental milestone that allows children to use objects and actions to represent something else. It involves creating and acting out imaginary scenarios, engaging in make-believe play, and using objects creatively and symbolically. This development usually happens in kids around two to three years old and continues throughout childhood.
However, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often face challenges in engaging in symbolic play. They struggle with imaginative thinking, telling stories, or playing pretend. They may need help grasping the abstract nature of objects, for example, failing to understand that a stick can be a sword or a block can be a chair.
4. ABA Therapy and Play
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is the gold standard therapy for children with autism. It focuses on teaching and reinforcing healthy behaviors while reducing challenging behaviors. Play is an integral part of an ABA regime to engage children and teach them new skills effectively.
In ABA therapy, play is often used as a naturalistic teaching approach, where therapists incorporate play-based activities to target specific goals. Therapists create a play environment that encourages learning by utilizing the child’s interests and motivations. They may use toys, games, and social scenarios to teach social skills, language development, and problem-solving.
ABA therapists employ prompting, reinforcement, and shaping strategies to guide children through play-based activities. By breaking down complex skills into manageable steps, therapists can gradually teach children with autism new skills. For example, if the goal is to teach turn-taking, therapists may use a game where the child takes turns with the therapist or a peer. A child can learn concepts and generalize them to other contexts through positive reinforcement, receiving a reward for each healthy action.
5. How To Encourage Play
Below are some simple techniques for parents that ABA therapists use to encourage playing:
- Structured Play Activities: Introduce structured play activities with clear rules and expectations. This technique can help children with autism understand the play context and develop appropriate social skills, such as sharing, taking turns, and following instructions.
- Visual Supports: Visible schedules, social stories, or visual prompts can assist children with autism in understanding the sequence of play activities, expected behaviors, and social rules.
- Peer Modeling and Support: During play, you can lead the way. If you act as a model and a mentor during play sessions, you can help children on the spectrum understand and navigate social interactions.
- Facilitate Shared Interests: This is a commonsense principle, kids like playing with kids who hold similar interests. You motivate and engage your child in interactive play by identifying which peer has an overlapping interest.
ABA Centers of New Jersey, ABA, Autism and Playing
At ABA Centers of New Jersey, we offer top-of-the-line ABA therapy for your or your loved one’s growth. Our board-certified experts individualize our care to ensure every child capitalizes on their strengths and shores up their weaknesses. Play therapy is central in ABA for teaching kids new abilities and safeguarding joy, success, and independence.
Call (855) 640-7888 or reach out on our website for a free consultation.