How To Play With Your Autistic Child?

Explore meaningful ways to play and connect with your autistic child. Discover practical tips and engaging activities to create joyful and enriching experiences together.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
December 13, 2023
min read

Understanding Autism and Play Therapy

In order to better support children with autism, it is important to understand what autism is, how play therapy can be beneficial, and the specific advantages it offers for autistic children.

What is Autism?

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior. It is characterized by a wide range of symptoms and challenges that vary from person to person.

Individuals with autism may have difficulty with social cues, language development, repetitive behaviors, and sensory sensitivities. However, it's essential to remember that each person with autism is unique and may experience these challenges differently.

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is a therapeutic approach that utilizes play as a means of communication and self-expression. It provides a safe and supportive environment for children to explore their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Play therapy is particularly effective for children who may have difficulty expressing themselves verbally, such as those with autism.

Through play, children can engage in activities that promote creativity, problem-solving, and social interaction. Play therapy sessions are typically led by a trained professional who uses various techniques to facilitate growth and development in the child.

The Benefits of Play Therapy for Autistic Children

Play therapy offers numerous benefits for autistic children, helping them develop essential skills and navigate their unique challenges. Some of the key benefits of play therapy for autistic children include:

  • Enhanced communication skills: Play therapy provides a non-threatening environment for children with autism to practice and improve their communication skills. By engaging in imaginative play, they can learn to express their thoughts, feelings, and needs effectively.
  • Improved social interaction: Play therapy encourages social interaction and collaboration, helping autistic children develop important social skills. Through structured play sessions, they can learn to take turns, share, and engage with peers, fostering positive social connections.
  • Emotional regulation: Play therapy allows autistic children to explore their emotions in a safe and supportive setting. Through play, they can learn to identify and express their emotions, while also developing strategies for emotional regulation and self-calming.
  • Sensory integration: Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities. Play therapy can help them explore and regulate their sensory experiences through activities that incorporate different textures, sounds, and movements. This can aid in sensory integration and reduce sensory-related challenges.
  • Problem-solving and cognitive development: Play therapy provides opportunities for autistic children to engage in problem-solving activities, stimulating cognitive development and critical thinking skills. Through play, they can practice decision-making, adaptability, and creative problem-solving.

By understanding the unique needs of autistic children and recognizing the benefits of play therapy, caregivers and professionals can create a nurturing environment for growth and development. Play therapy, when tailored to the individual needs of each child, can be a powerful tool in promoting empathy, connection, and growth in the lives of autistic children.

The Role of Play in Autism

Play holds a significant role in the lives of autistic children, providing them with opportunities for learning, growth, and self-expression. Understanding the importance of play and how it supports their development is crucial for creating a positive and enriching environment.

Importance of Play for Autistic Children

For autistic children, play serves as a powerful tool for learning and communication. It allows them to explore their surroundings, develop social skills, and express their thoughts and emotions. Through play, they can engage with their environment in a way that is meaningful to them, fostering a sense of empowerment and control.

Autistic children often have unique interests and sensory preferences. Play provides a safe space for them to fully immerse themselves in activities that capture their attention and engage their senses. By embracing their individual interests and incorporating them into play, caregivers can create an environment that feels comfortable and enjoyable for the child. This can help build a positive association with play and encourage further exploration and participation.

How Play Supports Development and Growth

Play has numerous benefits for the development and growth of autistic children. It promotes cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development in various ways:

  • Cognitive Development: Play enhances problem-solving skills, creativity, and imagination. It encourages the development of cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and decision-making.
  • Social Development: Play provides opportunities for social interaction, turn-taking, sharing, and cooperation. It allows autistic children to practice social skills, such as initiating and maintaining conversations, understanding non-verbal cues, and developing empathy.
  • Emotional Development: Through play, autistic children can explore and express their emotions in a safe and non-threatening environment. It can help them develop emotional regulation skills, improve self-awareness, and build resilience.
  • Physical Development: Engaging in play activities promotes fine and gross motor skills development. It helps improve coordination, balance, strength, and dexterity.

Understanding the significance of play in the lives of autistic children can guide caregivers in providing appropriate support and creating a nurturing play environment. By incorporating structured play, educational toys, and fine motor activities, caregivers can maximize the benefits of play therapy for their autistic child. It's essential to follow the child's lead, respect their preferences, and provide a safe and supportive environment that encourages exploration, growth, and connection.

Key Principles of Play Therapy for Autism

When it comes to play therapy for autism, several key principles guide the therapeutic process. These principles aim to create a supportive and engaging environment that promotes the holistic development of autistic children. Let's explore three important principles: structured and guided play, building empathy and connection, and promoting communication and social skills.

Structured and Guided Play

Structured and guided play is a foundational principle in play therapy for autism. Autistic children often thrive in environments that provide clear expectations and routines. Structured play sessions involve creating a predictable and organized play environment where the child knows what to expect. This can be achieved through the use of visual schedules, timers, and clear instructions.

Guided play involves the therapist or caregiver actively participating in the play session, providing support and scaffolding to facilitate the child's engagement and learning. By offering guidance, the therapist or caregiver can help the child stay on task, introduce new concepts, and encourage the development of specific skills. For example, educational toys and games tailored to the child's needs and interests can be utilized to promote learning and engagement.

Building Empathy and Connection

Another important principle of play therapy for autism is building empathy and connection. Play provides a unique opportunity for autistic children to develop social and emotional skills. Through play interactions, the child learns to recognize and understand emotions, both in themselves and others. The therapist or caregiver plays a crucial role in modeling empathy and fostering a sense of connection.

During play therapy sessions, the focus is on creating a safe and supportive environment where the child feels comfortable expressing their emotions and exploring their experiences. By actively listening and responding empathetically, the therapist or caregiver helps the child develop a deeper understanding of their own emotions and those of others. This process builds the foundation for meaningful connections and social interactions.

Promoting Communication and Social Skills

Play therapy for autism also aims to promote communication and social skills. Play provides a natural platform for practicing and developing these skills in a non-threatening and enjoyable setting. The therapist or caregiver can incorporate communication games and activities that encourage turn-taking, sharing, and cooperation.

Through play, the child has the opportunity to practice and refine their communication skills, such as making requests, expressing needs, and engaging in reciprocal conversations. Pretend play can be particularly beneficial in this regard, as it allows the child to explore different social roles and practice social scripts in a supportive environment.

By integrating these key principles into play therapy sessions, autistic children can experience meaningful growth and development. As therapists or caregivers, it is important to create a structured and guided play environment, foster empathy and connection, and promote communication and social skills. Remember, every child is unique, so adapt the strategies to meet the specific needs and interests of the child you are working with.

Play Therapy Techniques for Autistic Children

When engaging in play therapy with autistic children, it's important to utilize various techniques that cater to their unique needs and promote their development. Here are three effective play therapy techniques specifically designed for autistic children: sensory play, pretend play, and social play.

Sensory Play

Sensory play is a valuable technique that focuses on engaging the senses of autistic children. It provides opportunities for them to explore different textures, sounds, smells, and tastes, which can help with sensory integration and regulation. Engaging in sensory play can also promote relaxation and reduce anxiety.

Consider creating a sensory bin filled with materials like rice, sand, or water beads. Add objects with different textures or scents for the child to touch and smell. This type of play allows the child to engage their senses and develop their fine motor skills.

Pretend Play

Pretend play, also known as imaginative play, is an effective way to encourage social interaction, language development, and creativity in autistic children. Through pretend play, children can engage in role-playing and explore various scenarios, which can help them understand different social situations and enhance their communication skills.

Create a pretend play area with props and costumes that allow the child to take on different roles and act out different scenarios. This could include dress-up clothes, play kitchen sets, or toy tools. By participating in pretend play, the child can practice social skills, problem-solving, and empathy.

Social Play

Social play involves engaging in play activities with others, such as peers, siblings, or caregivers. It helps autistic children build social skills, develop emotional connections, and learn appropriate social behaviors. Social play activities encourage turn-taking, sharing, and cooperation.

Organize playdates with other children or engage in activities that involve group play. This can include board games, arts and crafts, or outdoor games. Encourage the child to interact with others, practice communication skills, and navigate social situations.

By incorporating sensory play, pretend play, and social play into play therapy sessions, you can create a supportive and engaging environment for autistic children. Remember to follow the child's lead, provide encouragement, and tailor the activities to their interests and abilities.

Tips for Engaging in Play Therapy with Autistic Children

Engaging in play therapy with autistic children requires creating a safe and supportive environment that encourages their growth and development. By following the child's lead and incorporating their interests, caregivers can establish a strong connection and facilitate meaningful interactions. Here are some important tips to consider:

Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment

To ensure a successful play therapy session, it's essential to create a safe and supportive environment. This includes:

  • Minimizing distractions: Reduce external stimuli that may overwhelm the child, such as loud noises or bright lights. Create a calm and quiet space where the child feels comfortable.
  • Establishing a routine: Autistic children thrive on predictability and routine. Establish a consistent play therapy schedule to provide a sense of security and familiarity.
  • Using visual supports: Visual supports, such as visual schedules or social stories, can help the child understand expectations and transitions during play therapy sessions. These supports provide a visual structure that aids in comprehension.
  • Providing sensory accommodations: Some autistic children may have sensory sensitivities or preferences. Ensure that the play environment accommodates their sensory needs by offering items like fidget toys, weighted blankets, or noise-canceling headphones.

Following the Child's Lead

When engaging in play therapy with an autistic child, it's important to follow their lead and let their interests guide the play. This approach allows the child to take an active role in the therapy session and encourages their autonomy. Here's how to follow the child's lead:

  • Observe and join in: Watch and listen to what the child is doing during play. Join in their play by imitating their actions or engaging with the same toys. This demonstrates that you value their choices and interests.
  • Follow their pace: Autistic children may have their own unique rhythm and pace. Be patient and flexible, allowing them to set the pace of the play therapy session. This helps create a comfortable and stress-free environment.
  • Validate their preferences: Acknowledge and validate the child's preferences, even if they differ from your own. Show genuine interest in their chosen activities and toys. This fosters a sense of acceptance and builds trust between you and the child.

Incorporating the Child's Interests

Incorporating the child's interests into play therapy can significantly enhance their engagement and motivation. Consider the following strategies:

  • Offer a variety of toys: Provide a range of toys and materials that align with the child's interests. This allows them to explore different textures, colors, and functions, promoting sensory and cognitive development.
  • Integrate their special interests: Incorporate the child's special interests into play therapy activities. For example, if the child shows a keen interest in trains, incorporate train-themed toys or activities into the session. This creates a meaningful connection and encourages active participation.
  • Follow their communication style: Autistic children may communicate in different ways, including nonverbal cues or alternative communication systems. Respect and adapt to their preferred communication style, whether it's through gestures, pictures, or assistive technology.

By creating a safe and supportive environment, following the child's lead, and incorporating their interests, caregivers can engage in effective play therapy with autistic children. Remember, every child is unique, so it's essential to tailor the approach to their specific needs and preferences.


Playing with your autistic child can be a wonderful way to connect and have fun together. Start by observing their interests and preferences, as many autistic children have unique hobbies. Engage in activities that match their interests, like building with blocks, drawing, or exploring sensory play.

Maintaining a consistent routine and clear communication is essential, as it can help them feel more comfortable and secure during playtime. Be patient and flexible, as they may have sensory sensitivities or different communication styles. Tailor your approach to their needs and pace, creating a supportive and enjoyable experience. Above all, cherish the moments of play, as it's an opportunity to bond, understand each other better, and celebrate your child's individuality.


steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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