But is that a problem? When should we be lending autistic kids a hand with their play, and how do we do that?
What's the point of play?
We play for a lot of different reasons - learning, exercise, stimulation, entertainment - and it’s no different for autistic kids. They’re learning and exploring the world, testing out ideas and plain old having a good time - but it’s just not always in the way that we might expect.
Spinning the propeller on a toy helicopter over and over might seem boring and purposeless to many kids, but for others it's really exciting. It feels good and sparks their curiosity about stuff like air currents and the patterns of sunlight through the dust... to them it’s a functional, purposeful way to enjoy and explore the world.
So finding enjoyment and stimulation in things that most people consider odd isn’t the bit where autistic kids might need help.
How do we learn to play?
Like language, play is a skill that develops in stages.
Symbolic and imaginative play
How do play skills develop in autism?
Just like the echolalic stage of language, sometimes autistic kids can get stuck or delayed at one of the stages in their play development for different reasons:
- Sensory seekers often really enjoy sensory play and can find it hard to move on
- Sensory avoiders might not enjoy manipulating objects to discover their function
- Exploring all the possible functions of objects requires a bigger picture view which can be tricky when you're focused on details
- A preference for routine and fear of change can make exploring seem daunting
- Communication difficulties make it hard to get help if you get stuck
- Rigid thinking and perseveration can be a barrier to finding new ways to use objects
- It's easy to miss feedback or ideas about the correct way to use objects if you're hyper-focused or easily distracted
Sorting and categorizing are normal parts of exploratory play for example, and kids who have an intense need to create order often find this phase of play development particularly enjoyable and satisfying. This can result in stereotypical behaviours like lining up cars instead of driving them around a track, but this is just a sign of immature rather than defective play skills.
So it's important to remember that a delay in this area of development doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t ever develop more complex play skills - it simply means that they’re not there yet.
So what do they need help with?
The goal for helping autistic kids with their play isn't necessarily to change the things they play with or teach them to play in the same way that their peers do, but to help them use the way they play and the things they find engaging to progress through the developmental stages to develop other more complex skills.
One of the most important functions of the later stages of play is the opportunity to learn and practice social skills like cooperating, sharing, taking turns and participating in a group. These are areas that autistic kids often find tough to navigate, and being stuck in the earlier stages of play means they're missing out on opportunities to strengthen the development of these skills.
Engaging in symbolic play also goes hand in hand with language development - both require the ability to use one thing to represent something else. Words substitute for ideas, objects and events in much the same way that a banana substitutes for a phone or daddy fills in for Batman. The relationship between symbolic play and language is complex and not yet fully understood, but there's no doubt that time spent engaging in one helps the development of the other.
What about kids who don't play at all?
A lack of engagement with toys is often one of the first things people notice about the play behaviour of autistic kids, yet it isn’t always a good reflection of the level of play skill development. That's because we make some pretty big assumptions when describing and defining what appropriate play looks like.
Assumption #1: This is a toy
Assumption #2: This is fun
Assumption #3: This is appropriate
So before we jump in and conclude that a kid isn't interested in play, we really need to think about the kinds of things that might be impacting their ability to do that:
- Can they identify which objects are toys?
- Is the toy fun for them?
- Is the toy comfortable for them to use?
- Do they know how to use the toy?
- Can they physically operate the toy?
- Do they know when it’s time to play?
- Do they know where to play?
- Are they able to physically access something to play with?
- Are they able to choose something to play with?
- Are they able to independently transition to and start a play activity?
- Are they able to communicate when they need help?
How can you support autistic kids with their play?
Forget what you know about toys
Widen their horizons
Widen your horizons
The bottom line
Autistic kids can and do play, and doing so in a way that's different to other kids or uses unusual objects doesn't automatically make it dysfunctional. Just like all kids, they need support and encouragement to progress and get better at playing so they can develop more complex skills. And as is the case with other types of learning, this help might need to be provided in a comprehensive and structured way.
Image courtesy Microsoft
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