When you’re a child, playing is your work. Playing should be fun and functional because during childhood most learning is done through play-based activities. But there are actually different categories of play and just how your child plays should progress through a set of milestones for each category. We aren’t going to talk about age because milestones for age groups are based on typically developing children. The age is not important, nor is how fast it takes your child to progress. What’s important is that they are moving forward and will eventually get there. A halt in play skills development can affect development in other areas- especially social skills and life skills. Take a few minutes to read through the lists and ask yourself: are your autistic child’s play skills progressing? Plus, how can you help if they aren’t?
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Play Level Progression
The progression of play skills is broken down into five categories: Sensory Exploration, Early Relational Play, Symbolic or Pretend Play, Sociodramatic Play, and Games with Rules. Read through the expected progression of skills and ask your self if your child currently engages in that type of play. You should answer yes, no, or sometimes. Evaluating your autistic child’s play skills will help you meet them at their current level of ability and encourage the development of more advanced skills. Be aware that their ability level may vary greatly from one category to another. Also, they may have moved past an early method of play and onto a more progressed skill within a category.
- Uses senses to explore objects: Your child may put objects in their mouth, sniff objects, or visually inspect an object. At this beginning stage, your child may also perform the action with all objects and toys, such as banging, shaking, or spinning.
- Repetitive sensory exploration: Your child engaged in a single form of sensory play repetitively for extended periods of time. Some kids will engage in this type of play so much so that they do not play any other way.
- Object exploration: Some children explore objects by looking for differences in shape, color, texture, etc. During this stage, your child may pull, turn, poke, and tear objects. Your child will use one object or toy at a time but change objects often.
Early Relational Play
- Cause-and-effect play: At this stage, your child is beginning to combine objects in a container, push buttons, turn handles, opening and shutting, etc. Your child may throw a toy in play (not to get rid of it). Your child may be able to put some objects together and enjoy toys such as shape sorters, busy boards, etc.
- Relational Play: Your child is started to use toys in a more functional way. They can engage in activities such as pushing a toy car, blowing into a noisemaker, place ring on a ring stacker, etc.
Symbolic or Pretend Play
- Early pretend play – directed toward self: Your child will begin pretending by doing familiar actions towards themselves. They may pretend to sleep, comb their hair, talk on the phone, etc. They may use realistic toys or objects and make sounds. They may say “Moo” while playing with a toy cow or pretend to eat toy food and make chomping noises.
- Early pretend play – directed toward others: Your child is starting to pretend toward other people. At this stage, they may pretend to feed you, a sibling, or even a toy doll. Feeding and grooming are usually the first pretend-play activities to emerge.
- Linking pretend actions: Your child now performs the same pretend-play actions on multiple play partners – for example, they pretend to feed self, feed their mom, feed their dad, feed their doll, drink from several cups, etc.
- Early symbolic object play: Your child is moving on from using realistic toy objects in play to using substitute objects. For example, pretending a block is a cookie. The substitute objects often look similar to the real object. Your child may now pretend to pour and drink juice at this stage, or pretend their toy stove is hot.
- Symbolic sounds and gestures: Your child is now using sound effects in their play. They may use a different voice now for their doll or say “chuga-chuga choo-choo” as they drive their toy train.
- Linking symbolic actions: Pretend play starts becoming more complex now as your child starts linking together a variety of play actions. For example, they may feed their doll, then put them to sleep. Or, pretend to put gas in their car before driving their car.
- Doll as an active agent: Before now, your child was using their dolls or toys passively in play – doing pretend actions to them. Now the doll becomes an active agent. Your child may make the toy or doll walk, hold a spoon and eat, kick a ball, etc.
- Advanced substitute object use: Next your child starts using substitute objects for a missing toy during pretend play. They may use items as pretend food or pretend to wash a car without any cloth for water. Now, the substitute objects may not look anything like the real object.
- Telling stories with toys: This is the last developmental stage of pretend/symbolic play. Your child can now act out a complex story using their toys. For example, they may pretend to drive a car, crash the car, fix the car, all as part of a single play sequence. Or they may give their doll a bottle, burp the doll, change the doll’s diaper and put it to bed.
This is the most complex level of play. When your autistic child’s play skills reach this level they will begin assigning multiple roles to themselves and other play partners such as siblings. This stage starts with familiar play themes and progresses to fantasy characters and stories they create. They may use props, substitute objects, and toys, or may simply play using language and gestures alone. This type of play is very elaborate and often very difficult for children with autism.
Games With Rules
- Simple games: Learning games occur along with object play. Your child learns to take turns and follow directions or simple games. This includes games such a tag, or freeze dance, hide-and-go-seek, etc.
- Manipulative games: Your child can play simple games which have a few rules or steps and also a manipulative component. “Don’t Break the Ice” is a great example of a beginner manipulative game. Another popular example is the classic game Operation. (Hey, these games also target fine motor skills! Win-win)
- Board Games: Your child is developing problem-solving skills and is able to follow rules. They are moving on to board games that require some skill and have more complex rules. Connect 4 is an excellent game that encourages problem-solving and strategic thinking.
- Organized sports and playground games: Your child can play large motor games, even if they are only at a beginner’s level. These are games such as baseball, or soccer and include anything from an organized game to a few kids throwing or kicking the ball on the playground. As your child progresses toward this level of play you can facilitate by teaching games in steps and offering assistance.
Additional Play Behaviors
As your autistic child’s play skills develop, also assess their progress with these additional play behaviors:
- Stereotyped Play: Do they have advanced play skills, but only play with one toy, or complete the same sequence of play actions with every toy they encounter?
- Duration of Play: Does your child have a difficult time staying with one toy for a period of time and move very quickly between available toys?
- Facilitated Play: Look at the highest level of play skills your child has achieved in each category above. Are they able to engage in this form of play spontaneously, or do they need your help?
Helping Your Child’s Play Skills Progress
So what can you do, if your autistic child’s play skills seem to have halted in a certain category, are progressing slowly, or if their play is stereotyped, needs to be facilitated, etc.?
Well, you can actually teach play skills, and more complex levels of play can be learned. Encouraging the development of your child’s play skills can be beneficial for your child in all areas of development. So, where can you begin?
Modeling Play Skills
You can teach play skills to your child by modeling that type of play yourself. Take a look at the list and the highest level of play your child has achieved in each category. From there – you should model play skills that are one level higher than your child’s current skill level. These are the skills you answered “no” or “sometimes” to since they are just emerging skills.
Sitting and playing with your child is one of the absolute best ways for your child to learn. You should continue to model the plays skill you want to develop until your child has mastered that skill. Additionally, include the other already developed skills as you play so they can be maintained.
For board games and other games with rules – consider some of the beginner games mentioned above. As you move on to teaching your child organized sports or playground games think about all the skills involved with playing that game. For example – to play baseball you must be able to throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball with the bat, and run the bases. Start teaching one step of playing the game at a time. You can also develop task strips to help teach your child the sequences involved in playing the game.
Additional Play Skills
If you want to increase the duration your child plays with a single toy keep all toys away and only introduce a single toy at a time. Slowly increase the amount of time required playing with a single toy before introducing another toy to your child.
If your child only engages in facilitated play and needs help make sure you work on spontaneous play and initiation before moving on to a higher level of prompted play. Use positive reinforcement while encouraging your child to initiate play independently.
If your child’s play is stereotypical and they complete the same sequence with a toy every single time, model different ways of playing with that toy. Start by modifying your child’s play sequence only very slightly and progressively increase the different ways to play with a single toy. Do not move on to model a more complex play level until your child is playing with toys in a variety of ways.
The information in this post was obtained from “Classroom Pivotal Response Teaching for Children With Autism” by Aubyn C, Stahmer, Jessica Suhrheinrich, Sarah Reed, Laura Schreibman, and Cynthia Bolduc. This book presents a research-supported behavioral intervention for children with autism that teachers can easily integrate into their existing classroom curriculum. You can purchase the book on Amazon.