Structured play can be a good way for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to learn play skills like sharing, taking turns and being with other children.

How autism spectrum disorder can affect play

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) enjoy playing, but they can find some types of play difficult.

It’s common for them to have very limited play, play with only a few toys, or play in a repetitive way. For example, your child might like spinning the wheels on a car and watching the wheels rotate, or might do a puzzle in the same order every time.

Because ASD affects the development of social skills and communication skills, it can also affect the development of important skills needed for play, like the ability to:

  • copy simple actions

  • explore the environment

  • share objects and attention with others

  • imagine what other children are thinking and feeling

  • respond to others 

  • take turns

How structured play can help children with autism spectrum disorder

Structured play is when a grown-up provides resources, starts play or joins in with children’s play to offer some direction or guidelines. Free play is unplanned play that just happens, depending on what children are interested in at the time.

Both are important for children’s development, but structured play activities are particularly useful for children with ASD who are learning early play skills like sharing, taking turns and interacting with other children.

This is because a structured play activity usually gives children clear guidelines about what to do and when. It also usually has a clear end point. This reduces the number of options that can come up in a play scenario, which can sometimes be overwhelming for children with ASD. A clear structure can also help your child understand the steps, skills, activities or ideas that are needed to get to the end goal of the game.

All of this creates a lower-stress environment where your child can practise the skills he needs both to play and interact successfully with other children.

Once your child has learned the steps, over time she might be able to start and finish the activity without support.

How to structure a play activity for children with autism spectrum disorder

The first step is choosing an appropriate play activity. Activities that have a clear goal and ending are best, like jigsaws, puzzle books, song and action DVDs, picture lotto, and matching games.

Next, you could try creating a visual schedule:

  • Represent each step of the activity with visual cues attached to a board. The cues could be objects, pictures or words.

  • Pull off each cue during the activity as your child progresses, so that you clearly show what the next stage of the activity is.

  • Gradually reduce your support until your child can use the schedule and complete the activity on his own.

To start with, your child might not find the activity or its end result fun by itself. You might need to add something else to help your child learn that this type of play can be fun. For example, if your child loves your tickles, you can tickle her after each stage of the activity is finished, and then have a big tickle session at the end of the whole activity.

This extra reinforcement will help your child to have a positive experience of the structured play activity while he’s still learning play skills. 

Top tips for structured play with children with autism spectrum disorder

These tips can help you and your child with ASD get the most out of structured play:

  • Use your child’s interests. For example, if your child loves Thomas the Tank Engine, start by using Thomas-themed jigsaws, puzzles or colouring books.

  • Choose activities that your child can do. Think about what stage your child is at and try moving play onto the next stage. For example, if she’s banging blocks, introduce some turn-taking with the blocks.

  • Use your child’s strengths. For example, if your child responds well to visual cues, try a very visual activity like sorting coloured blocks.

  • Talk only as much as you need to.

  • Keep playtime short.

  • Redirect inappropriate play. For example, if your child is banging blocks together, you could prompt him to stack them, or redirect him to an activity that involves banging.

Developing play 

As your child with ASD becomes more able to complete structured play activities on her own, you can begin to expand how long you play and the number of activities you do with your child. For example, once your child can complete a few activities, try to set up a few different play stations around the house. 

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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