For all children, play is an essential aspect of development as it allows children to learn more about the world that they live in. It facilitates the emergence of many aspects critical in child development – cognition, language, joint attention, social behaviors, etc. As play is an enjoyable activity, it allows children to learn such skills more easily, reducing stress. Play is also the activity in which most social interactions between children occur, and therefore would serve as a useful manner for children with ASD to learn more about social skills.
Children with ASD often prefer solitary play to social forms of play. To aid the development of social skills, children with ASD can be encouraged to engage in social forms of play when there are such social opportunities available. Solitary play is a developmental phase for all children, but children with autism tend to stay in this phase longer than their typically developing peers. Children with autism may show strong preferences for certain toys or activities, and these can be used to encourage them to engage socially with others when playing. A study conducted by Hoch, McComas, Johnson, Faranda, and Guenther in 2002 show that simply having the child’s preferred toy in close proximity to peers can increase social interactions with them. Additionally, a study by Koegel, Dyer, and Bell (1987) show that children with ASD engaged more socially with their peers in activities that they have chosen (their preferred activity) rather than those chosen by adults. These examples highlight that having a toy or activity of interest can make a child with ASD more comfortable and willing to engage in social interactions during play, and such considerations can be taken into account to increase levels of social play.
However, it is possible that the children may select items or activities that are inappropriate or are not typically used for play. For instance, dropping blocks on the floor (rather than building something), waving towels in the air, etc. These behaviors are known as stereotyped behaviors rather than play, and conventional play with toys should be encouraged instead. Inappropriate play with items may lead to a sensory experience that the children like. If this sensory preference can be identified, caretakers can encourage them to play with toys that lead to the same sensory outcome appropriately. Modeling (Leaf et al, 2012, 2015) is another method to increase children’s preferences for objects they did not choose at first. Adults whom the children are close with can select a toy and play with it in new and interesting ways. Children with ASD can then model this behavior and play with the toys in a more conventional manner, allowing them to then engage better with their peers during social play.
In aspects of pretend play, children with ASD tend to be more repetitive in the actions, and have fewer novel actions in reaction to different situations of play (Desha, Ziviani, and Rodger, 2003; Jarrold, Boucher, and Smith, 1993). Prompting and adult intervention is often necessary to guide children with autism to engage in pretend play with their peers. As pretend play is associated with several social skills such as perspective taking, theory of mind and language, it is critical that adults guide children with autism to engage in this form of play. To facilitate pretend play, emerging research has shown the use of drama therapy for children to learn the skills needed (Neufeld, 2013). Engaging in pretend play with their peers helps them to expand their repertoire of skills in reaction to various social situations, and may perhaps reduce the occurrence of repetitive behaviors in play.
To conclude, play is important in every child’s development as one of the methods for learning and socialization. Social interactions for children with ASD may be challenging, but doing so against a backdrop of play can help them feel more comfortable, easing them into the social situation more readily.
Charlop, M. J., Lang, R., Rispoli, M. (2018). Play and Social Skills for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. All Children Can Play: Prompting and Modeling Procedures to Teach Play to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, 33-52.
Desha, L., Ziviani, J., & Rodger, S. (2003). Play preferences and behavior of preschool children with autistic spectrum disorder in the clinical environment. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 23, 21–42. https://doi.org/10.1080/J006v23n01_03
Hoch, H., McComas, J. J., Johnson, L., Faranda, N., & Guenther, S. L. (2002). The effects of magnitude and quality of reinforcement on choice responding during play activities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 35, 171–181. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2002.35-171
Jarrold, C., Boucher, J., & Smith, P. (1993). Symbolic play in autism: A review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder, 23, 281–307.
Koegel, R. L., Dyer, K., & Bell, L. K. (1987). The influence of child-preferred activities on autistic children’s social behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20(3), 243–252.
Leaf, J. B., Kassardjian, A., Oppenheim-Leaf, M. L., Tsuji, K. H., Dale, S., Alcalay, A., … McEachin, J. (2015). Observational effects on preference selection for four children on the autism spectrum: A replication. Behavioral Interventions, 30, 256–269. https://doi.org/10.1002/ bin.1411
Leaf, J. B., Oppenheim-Leaf, M. L., Leaf, R., Courtemanche, A. B., Taubman, M., McEachin, J., … Sherman, J. A. (2012). Observational effects on the preferences of children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 45, 473–483. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2012.45-473.
Neufeld, D. J. (2013). Integrated drama groups: Promoting symbolic play, empathy, and social engagement with peers in children with autism. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A, 74.