How to Play with Your Autistic Child: A Guide for Parents

Playing can be an effective tool for fostering social, cognitive, and emotional development. Here are some guidelines and tips on how to play with your autistic child.

reuben kesherim
Ruben Kesherim
November 5, 2023

How to Play with Your Autistic Child: A Guide for Parents

Understanding Autism and Play

When it comes to children with autism, play is not just a pastime; it is a powerful tool for learning and development. Understanding the importance of play for autistic children and how it can support their overall development is crucial.

The Importance of Play for Autistic Children

Play holds immense significance for autistic children as it allows them to engage, explore, and learn about the world around them. Through play, they can develop important social, emotional, cognitive, and physical skills. It provides an opportunity for them to practice and refine their communication, problem-solving, and social interaction abilities.

Autistic children often face challenges in social communication and imaginative play. Engaging in play activities can help them develop and practice these skills in a safe and enjoyable environment. Play also facilitates the development of creativity, imagination, and self-expression, allowing autistic children to explore their interests and talents.

How Play Can Support Development?

Play has the potential to support various aspects of development in autistic children. Here are some ways in which play can be beneficial:

  • Social Skills: Play provides opportunities for autistic children to practice social interactions, turn-taking, sharing, and cooperation. It can foster the development of empathy and understanding of others' perspectives.
  • Communication Skills: Play can enhance communication skills in autistic children. It encourages them to use language to express their thoughts, needs, and emotions. Additionally, play can promote non-verbal communication skills, such as gestures and body language.
  • Cognitive Skills: Play activities can stimulate cognitive development by promoting problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making skills. Through play, autistic children can enhance their attention, memory, and executive functioning abilities.
  • Emotional Regulation: Play can serve as an outlet for emotional expression and regulation. It allows autistic children to explore and understand their emotions and develop coping strategies for managing stress and anxiety.
  • Motor Skills: Engaging in play activities that involve movement, manipulation of objects, or fine motor skills can aid in the development of motor coordination and dexterity.

By recognizing the importance of play and understanding how it can support the development of autistic children, parents, caregivers, and educators can create meaningful and engaging play experiences. It's important to choose play activities that are suited to the child's individual interests, strengths, and sensory preferences.

Remember, each child with autism is unique, and it's essential to follow their lead, provide support, and create a nurturing environment that encourages play and promotes their overall development.

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Sensory Play Activities

Engaging in sensory play activities can be highly beneficial for autistic children, as it helps stimulate their senses and promotes their overall development. Here are three sensory play activities that can be enjoyable and effective for your child:

Sensory Bins and Sensory Bottles

Sensory bins and sensory bottles are fantastic sensory play activities that provide opportunities for exploration and discovery. A sensory bin is a container filled with materials that engage different senses, such as touch and sight.

It can contain items like rice, sand, or beads, along with various objects for your child to manipulate and explore. Sensory bottles, on the other hand, are clear containers filled with captivating items like water, glitter, or small objects. These bottles provide visual stimulation and can also be used for calm-down purposes.

Sensory Bin Ideas Sensory Bottle Ideas
Rice with small toys hidden inside Glitter and water bottle
Colored pasta with scooping tools Sequins and oil bottle
Shaving cream with toy animals Beads and water bottle

Sensory play activities like these can help your child develop their fine motor skills, enhance their tactile awareness, and promote creativity and imaginative play.

Playdough and Clay Activities

Playdough and clay activities are not only enjoyable but also provide numerous sensory experiences for your child. Manipulating playdough or clay helps improve fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and finger strength. Your child can shape, mold, and create various objects using their imagination.

Consider providing different tools like rolling pins, cookie cutters, or textured stamps to enhance the playdough or clay experience. Encourage your child to explore different colors, textures, and smells. You can also add natural materials, such as leaves or sticks, to incorporate an element of nature into their creations.

Water Play and Bubble Play

Water play and bubble play are highly engaging sensory activities that provide a range of sensory experiences. Water play can be as simple as filling a basin with water and allowing your child to feel the water's temperature, splash, pour, or explore objects in the water. Bubbles, on the other hand, can captivate your child's attention and provide visual and tactile stimulation. Blowing bubbles or using bubble machines can make for a fun and interactive playtime.

Engaging in water play and bubble play activities can help your child develop their hand-eye coordination, sensory integration, and social skills. Just make sure to supervise your child closely during water play to ensure their safety.

By incorporating sensory play activities like sensory bins, playdough and clay, and water play into your child's playtime routine, you can provide them with valuable opportunities for exploration, sensory stimulation, and skill development.

Pretend Play Activities

Pretend play activities can be highly beneficial for engaging and supporting the development of autistic children. These activities encourage imagination, creativity, and social interaction. Here are three pretend play activities that can be enjoyable and beneficial for autistic children.

Role-Playing with Dolls or Action Figures

Role-playing with dolls or action figures allows autistic children to explore various social scenarios and practice social skills in a safe and controlled environment. Through this activity, they can learn about empathy, emotions, and different social interactions. Encourage your child to create stories and act out different roles with their dolls or action figures. This can help them develop their communication and socialization skills.

To make the activity more engaging, you can provide props or accessories that relate to the characters or scenarios. For example, if your child is role-playing a doctor, you can introduce a toy stethoscope or medical kit to enhance their play experience. Remember to follow your child's lead and let them take the lead in directing the play.

Puppet Shows and Storytelling

Puppet shows and storytelling can be wonderful ways to encourage language development and creativity in autistic children. Using puppets or stuffed animals, your child can create their own stories and act them out. This activity allows them to express their thoughts and emotions in a playful and imaginative way.

You can start by introducing simple storylines or reading books together, and then encourage your child to create their own stories using the puppets. This activity promotes communication skills, storytelling abilities, and helps develop their imagination. It can also be a great bonding experience between you and your child.

Dress-Up and Costume Play

Dress-up and costume play provide autistic children with an opportunity to explore different roles and characters. By dressing up as their favorite characters or professionals, they can engage in imaginative play and develop a deeper understanding of social roles and expectations.

Encourage your child to dress up using costumes or props that represent their interests. For example, they can pretend to be a firefighter, a princess, or a superhero. This type of play can foster creativity, problem-solving skills, and even expand their knowledge about different occupations and roles in society.

By incorporating these pretend play activities into your child's routine, you can create a fun and engaging environment that supports their development and encourages social interaction. Remember to be patient, follow their lead, and celebrate their creativity and imagination.

Structured Play Activities

Structured play activities provide autistic children with opportunities to engage in purposeful play while developing various skills. These activities often involve specific rules, goals, or guidelines, which can help promote learning, social interaction, and problem-solving abilities. Here are three examples of structured play activities that can be beneficial for autistic children:

Board Games and Card Games

Board games and card games offer an excellent way for autistic children to enhance their social and cognitive skills. These activities encourage turn-taking, following rules, and strategic thinking. By engaging in board games or card games, children can practice important social skills such as waiting their turn, sharing, and gracefully accepting both wins and losses.

The choice of board games or card games should be based on the child's interests and abilities. Look for games that are age-appropriate and provide clear rules and visuals to facilitate understanding. Consider games that incorporate educational aspects to further support learning.

Puzzles and Building Blocks

Puzzles and building blocks are excellent structured play activities that can enhance cognitive development, problem-solving skills, and fine motor abilities. Autistic children can benefit from puzzles and building blocks as these activities promote concentration, spatial awareness, and hand-eye coordination.

When selecting puzzles, choose ones that match the child's skill level and interests. Start with simpler puzzles and gradually progress to more complex ones as the child becomes more proficient. Building blocks, such as LEGO or other construction sets, can also provide endless opportunities for creativity and problem-solving. These activities can be done independently or in a collaborative setting, fostering social interaction and teamwork.

Arts and Crafts Projects

Engaging in arts and crafts projects can be a great way for autistic children to express their creativity, develop fine motor skills, and improve focus. Activities like drawing, painting, and crafting can provide a sense of accomplishment and boost self-esteem.

Choose art projects that align with the child's interests and abilities. Provide a variety of materials such as paper, colored pencils, paints, and clay to encourage exploration and self-expression. Arts and crafts projects can also be adapted to incorporate educational elements, such as creating collages related to a specific topic or practicing letter formation through tracing or cutting activities.

When engaging in structured play activities with autistic children, it's important to create a supportive and inclusive environment. Follow the child's lead, provide clear instructions, and offer praise and encouragement for their efforts. Incorporating visual supports, such as visual schedules or social stories, can also help autistic children understand the expectations and steps involved in each activity.

Remember, the goal of structured play activities is not only to have fun but also to facilitate growth and development in various areas. By incorporating structured play into their routine, parents and caregivers can provide autistic children with valuable learning experiences while fostering social skills and overall well-being.

Outdoor Play Activities

Engaging in outdoor play activities can be highly beneficial for autistic children, providing opportunities for sensory exploration, physical exercise, and social interaction. Here are some recommended outdoor play activities that can be enjoyable and beneficial for autistic children.

Swinging and Jumping Activities

Swinging and jumping activities can be both fun and therapeutic for autistic children. Swinging on a swing set or jumping on a trampoline can provide a sensory experience that promotes body awareness, balance, and coordination. These activities can also help improve muscle strength and enhance sensory integration. It's important to ensure proper safety measures and supervision while participating in these activities.

Nature Walks and Scavenger Hunts

Nature walks and scavenger hunts offer autistic children the chance to explore the outdoors, engage with nature, and stimulate their senses. Going on a nature walk allows them to experience different textures, sounds, smells, and sights. You can create a scavenger hunt by providing a list of items to find in nature, such as leaves, rocks, or flowers. This activity promotes observation skills, language development, and encourages a connection with the natural environment.

Sports and Physical Activities

Engaging in sports and physical activities can provide numerous benefits for autistic children. Participating in team sports or individual activities like biking, swimming, or playing catch promotes physical fitness, coordination, and social interaction.

It also helps develop important skills such as turn-taking, following rules, and working as part of a team. Tailor the sports and physical activities to your child's interests and abilities, making sure to provide appropriate adaptations and support as needed.

When engaging in outdoor play activities with autistic children, it's essential to consider their individual preferences, sensitivities, and comfort levels. Always create a supportive and inclusive environment where they feel safe to explore and express themselves. Remember to incorporate visual supports, such as visual schedules or social stories, to enhance understanding and communication.

By incorporating outdoor play activities into their routine, parents and caregivers can provide autistic children with enjoyable experiences that contribute to their overall development and well-being.

Tips for Effective Playtime

Engaging in playtime with an autistic child can be a wonderful opportunity for bonding, learning, and growth. To ensure a positive and effective play experience, consider the following tips:

Creating a Calm and Comfortable Environment

Creating a calm and comfortable environment is essential for promoting a successful play session. Autistic children can be sensitive to sensory stimuli, so it's important to minimize distractions and provide a soothing atmosphere. Choose a quiet space free from excessive noise, bright lights, or overwhelming visuals. Soft lighting, comfortable seating, and familiar objects can help create a sense of security and facilitate a more focused interaction.

Consider using sensory-friendly materials and equipment, such as soft pillows or weighted blankets, to provide additional comfort and support. This can help the child feel more at ease and enhance their engagement in the play activities.

Following the Child's Lead

When playing with an autistic child, it's crucial to follow their lead and respect their preferences and interests. Autistic children may have unique ways of engaging in play and may demonstrate specific preferences for certain toys or activities. Observe their cues and adapt your approach accordingly.

Allow the child to take the lead in choosing the activities, toys, or games they wish to play. Tune into their nonverbal communication and respond to their cues and gestures. This helps create a sense of empowerment and autonomy for the child, fostering a positive play experience.

By following the child's lead, you can build trust, strengthen their self-confidence, and encourage their active participation. This approach also promotes their social and communication skills.

Incorporating Visual Supports

Visual supports can be incredibly beneficial for autistic children during playtime. Many autistic individuals are visual learners and find visual cues helpful for understanding and communicating. Incorporating visual supports can enhance their comprehension, reduce anxiety, and facilitate engagement in play activities.

Consider using visual schedules, visual timers, or visual prompts to provide structure and predictability. These tools can help the child understand the sequence of activities and manage their expectations. Visual supports can also be used to demonstrate rules or steps involved in a game or activity.

Additionally, using visual aids such as pictures, symbols, or social stories can help clarify expectations and provide guidance during play. Visual supports can be particularly useful for fostering communication and encouraging the development of social skills.

By creating a calm environment, following the child's lead, and incorporating visual supports, you can enhance the playtime experience with an autistic child. Remember, every child is unique, so it's important to adapt these strategies to suit their specific needs and preferences. Enjoy the journey of play and discovery together!


Playing with your autistic child can be a great way to build a strong relationship and promote their social, cognitive, and emotional development. By incorporating your child's interests, using visual and sensory stimuli, keeping it structured and predictable, playing collaboratively, and being patient and understanding, you can create a fun and engaging playtime for your child.