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Friday 19 Jan 2018

Supporting Play Activities for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Submitted by Stephanie Williams

Through play, children learn to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength (Ginsburg, 2007). However, some children with autism may need a little extra support during play activities.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often participate better in activities that are constructive in nature. Constructive Play is characterized as manipulation of objects for the purpose of constructing or creating something (Rubin, 1984). During constructive play activities, children use materials to achieve a specific goal that requires transformation of objects into a new configuration. Activities that require children with ASD to build something (ex. blocks) or place items in a particular manner (ex. puzzles) may be more motivating and concrete than pretend play activities. When objects have a clearly defined “space” into which they belong or have a predictable function, you may find that children with autism will be more engaged and interested in participating.

Things to consider:

  • Spend time to identify motivating activities. Communication happens best during these times.
  • Make sure you provide the necessary tools for successful communication. Communication picture boards or voice output communication devices can offer the visual and auditory input and output to teach skills and increase understanding.
  • If you are using a communication device, you might not always have the exact vocabulary that matches every activity. Get creative and think outside of the box. Instead of creating new pages, use the content that is already in the system so that your child can begin to generalize the vocabulary.
  • If you are using a communication device, you must become familiar with the content in your students device in order for you to teach them appropriate use of their system. If you don’t know where the vocabulary is located then you can’t help your student when they get stuck.

Listed below are some specific examples of how a communication device can be used to support communication during play. While these examples come from DynaVox devices, these same strategies can be applied to any device you might have. If you are not using a communication device, simple picture boards can achieve the same outcomes.

Hint: For many of these activities, hold the play pieces in your hands or in a bag, slightly out of the child’s reach so that you can work on the following skills:

  • Requesting (choice making)
  • Turn-taking (social/pragmatic)
  • Commenting (expressive language)
  • Vocabulary learning (receptive language)
  • Yes/No (e.g. Do you want the red one?)
  • Initiating

Hint: Make sure that you give plenty of wait time to allow child to process, plan and respond. You may be missing communicative attempts if you don’t give them enough time.

Hint: Before initiating the activity with the child, make sure you navigate to the appropriate page and collect the necessary materials so you are all ready to go with the play activity! Also, don’t forget that you may have to show (model) the child how to use the new vocabulary during the activity.

Play Example 1: Ball Maze

If the child likes to watch the balls as they move through the maze, then you can easily turn this into a turn-taking and interactive language activity.

Activity Idea 1: Talk about colors.

Activity Idea 2: Teach the concept of “more.” Hold all of the balls in a bag and require the child to request more.

These same activities could be used with building blocks, crayons,

Play Example 2: Busy Box

Activity Idea: Talk about shapes and colors.

Play Example 3: Puzzles

Dictionary pages often contain single words that fit into a category such as food, animals, actions, things, transportation, etc. Depending on the type of puzzle you are using will determine which category you use. Here are some examples:

Activity Idea 1: Use the animal page when playing with a farm puzzle.

Activity Idea 2: Use the transportation page when playing with a vehicle puzzle.

Activity Idea 3: Use the food page when playing with a fruit puzzle.

Play Example 4: Toy cars and trucks

Activity Idea 1: Talk about colors.

Activity Idea 2: Use numbers to count the cars.

Activity Idea 3: Use the transportation category page and talk about the different types of cars (e.g. truck, tractor, etc.)

Play Example 5: Time in the sensory room

Children with autism may spend time in a sensory room, if one is available in their school or facility. A sensory room is a place where a person with special needs can interact in a pleasant environment where the distractions of the outside world are completely absent. The overactive can be calmed, the inactive become interested.

Play Activity 6: Mr. Potato Head

Activity Idea: Use the Body Parts and Clothing pages when playing with Mr. Potato Head.

Play Activity 7: Song play

Singing is a common activity in the young child classroom. The DynaVox v/Vmax has several popular songs pre-loaded.

Activity Idea 1: Use the song page for Itsy Bitsy Spider during circle time.

Activity Idea 2: Use the song page for 5 Little Monkeys during circle time.

Activity Idea 3: Use the song page for Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes during circle time.

Play Activity 8: Pretend Play

While we know that children with ASD my respond better to constructive play activities, it is also important to expose them to pretend play activities as well.

Activity Idea 1: Use the Dress-Up scene page for pretend play with dressing up themselves or dolls.

Activity Idea 2: Use the Doll House scene page when playing house.

Activity Idea 3: Use the Fort scene page for teaching how to build and play with forts.


  1. P Joyce says:

    This post is about teaching children to do structured activities with toys. Play is about having fun doing what you want not following directions. Research and books about play and children with autism is written by Pamela Wolfberg.

  2. workingwithautism says:

    Interesting article. Working with Autism, located in Los Angeles, has helped hundreds of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder to achieve their maximum potential for independence.

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