At Melissa & Doug, we believe in the power of play to celebrate the strengths of every child and to help build a strong foundation of skills for learning and for life. We have included five play ideas for children with autism that use a strengths-based approach to skill-building. Choosing play experiences and toys that add skill-building to activities your child already loves makes learning fun!
Please feel free to adapt the following play ideas to the needs, likes, and strengths of your individual child!
Play to Your Child’s Interests and Strengths
1. For Children Who Love Trains, Focus on Flexibility Skills
Studies have recently found a link between children with ASD and a love for trains. You can use this interest to engage your child in the practice of flexible thinking. Children with ASD often prefer THEIR way of doing things, and often do not like to consider alternatives. Train play can help practice adopting more flexible thinking habits.
Toys that Encourage Flexibility
With train tracks, there are often multiple ways of getting to the same place. You can ask your child, “Do you want to get to the water tower by going left and around, or right and up,” as you point. You can also say, “Good choice: This time we will go left and around, and maybe next time we can go right and up!” Emphasizing multiple ways of doing the same thing may help develop the beginnings of flexibility in decision-making and in routine.
As an added benefit, raising the trains and tracks up onto a table engages the gross motor muscles and core as children stand and move about the table while playing. It also offers room for multiple children to play in the same playspace, frustration free!
2. For Children Who Love Imaginative Play, Focus on Perspective Skills
All children have the gift of imagination and role play is a great way to develop this. Role play has often been praised as a prime way to encourage perspective, a key component of empathy. But role play does not always have to mean traditional dress-up, and in fact, many children with ASD actually prefer alternatives to dress up for their imaginative play. These alternatives can also be useful for preparing for new events or changes in routine, like a trip to a new grocery store!
Understanding another person’s perspective is not an easy task for a child with ASD. Not every brain is wired to take in and perceive the meaning behind body language, facial expressions, or actions of other people.Discussing the actions and feelings of others can be done through all types of imaginative play.
How to Encourage Perspective Skills
Focus on Actions: While playing grocery store, you can ask your child: “What would you like to do at the grocery store…ring up the food? Take the money? Pick out the food? Sell the produce?” By starting with an action before adding a person who does the action, a child with autism may make a connection to understanding perspective more easily. “A cashier likes to ring up the food and take the money too!”
Focus on Personal Experience. Another way to help with developing perspective is through personal experience. Asking a child to imagine another person’s perspective and compare it to their own allows for a recognition that someone else’s experience may be different than their own.
After a child has done the job of a cashier with play money, you can ask “Do you think the cashier’s job of counting money is easy or hard?” Or after a child pays for groceries as the customer, ask, “Wow, how do you feel trading your money for groceries? When I buy groceries, I feel…”
You can also add some gross motor practice into this experience by incorporating a shopping cart with the perspective of the shopper. “How does the shopping cart feel when it’s full?” “Is it hard to push?” Then add, “Do you think a customer would have a hard time pushing it?” Children with ASD often feel calmed by the sensory experience and weight of pushing a cart filled with toys!
3. For Children Who Love Repetition, Focus on Fine Motor Skills
The idea of repetition and consistency is often important and soothing to children with autism. Toys that can be played with over and over are classic favorites! Practicing fine motor skills promotes independence in life skills such as eating, dressing, and hygiene. These life skills also require repetition, as they are done every single day as part of a routine which may be comforting to your child.
Toys that Encourage Fine Motor Skills
The Basic Skills Board allows a child with autism to engage in different fine motor life skills over and over again. You can help your child make the connections to life skills by saying “Do you see any of these types of zippers, buttons, etc., during your day?”
This sound puzzle features predictable sounds from lovable animals which your child can play with over and over. Fine motor skills are being developed every time your child grabs one of the puzzle pieces, developing the very same hand muscles used later on for holding a pencil and writing.
Children can practice repeating these easy to learn magic tricks and build self-confidence and resilience as they master each one, then perform them for friends and family!
4. For Children Who Love Animals, Focus on Connection Skills
Many children with autism have a natural affinity for animals. As making connections with other people can be difficult for those with ASD, many prefer to build connections with animals.
Toys that Encourage Connection
Some ideas for toys that may help children practice these social-emotional skills include:
Children with autism will love learning to care for animals as they practice kindness and eye contact with the lovable dog and cat in this set. Also sized for on-the-go, the animals can be great comfort companions for when your child is out of routine.
The Wooden Bear Dress Up Set offers the opportunity for children with autism to practice reading facial expressions and what each one might mean. It also offers countless hours of storytelling connection with the bear family.
This sticker pad offers practice with reading facial expressions and also gives a child the opportunity to express a desired emotion to others by creating a facial expression on the animals.
Some children may find it easier to connect or understand emotions through play with a smaller play set. With this Safari Animal Rescue Truck, two wooden Animal Rescuers can have adventures connecting with and saving safari animals in any stories your little one can imagine.
5. For Children Who Love Colors, Shapes, and Sorting, Focus on Speech & Language Skills
Working with and sorting colors and shapes are often a strength of children with ASD. Allowing them the opportunity to engage in a skill they feel comfortable and confident with while developing Speech & Language is a great way to tap into your child’s natural gifts and make learning fun!
Toys that Encourage Speech & Language Skills
Connect and talk by holding a tea party with family and friends! Choose the color tea you would like and sort them by color into the matching space in the tea box.
Stacking blocks are a great resource for shaping language skills. Sort by size, shape, or color, or even play hide and seek with your favorite shape in the big yellow box. Name each color and shape with your child as you discover countless hours of fun and language!
With the Pound & Roll Tower, you and your child can name colors as you match and sort the balls into the corresponding color cut-out (or mix it up for added fun!). “Can you bonk the green ball?” “There goes the red ball …down…down…down or roll…roll…drop!” “Bye Bye, Red Ball.”
Tinkering is also often a strength of children with autism, and they may enjoy a gear toy that helps them explore cause-and-effect. Take this natural ability to combine pieces together with a love of colors and shapes, and you have a fun play experience your child will be talking about for quite a while! Using movement language will expose your child to new vocabulary and experiences. “Can we spin the purple gear?” or “What do you think will happen if you take out the blue gear?”
When it comes to children with autism, often their strengths are what surprises us the most, not their needs. Keeping the learning process strengths-based, engaging, and fun is a great way for these children to shine!