During the day, children spend most of their day playing, usually with people and objects around them. These seemingly simple moments are important, because play helps children to build new skills, practice skills they have already mastered, invent creative ways to play, and practice social skills. However, children with autism may have a different way of playing than their peers who are typically developing. This might include repeating an act or motion, spending an unusual amount of time with a certain object, or appearing content playing alone with toy play (without interaction from others). To an extent, playing independently is a normal part of play, however, children have fewer opportunities to acquire language skills when playing alone.
When working with a child with autism in a therapeutic preschool program, the teacher can teach appropriate plays skills through imitation. This method can also be used at home for parents who want to play with their child. In order to teach this skill, the first step is creating “object play” opportunities. Be sure to pick an object that the child is highly interested in, such as their favorite toy. Next, the child and teacher will develop a play routine, which incorporates toy play, taking turns, and establishing a main theme. Afterwards, the teacher will use variation with the child. During this step, the teacher will use the object to demonstrate different types of play, then hand the child the object to imitate those actions.
The last step is closing or transitioning out of the current object of interest. When the child becomes disinterested in the current object, the teacher will then help the child put away the object and move onto another activity. In a therapeutic preschool program, there are several different toys that the child can play with, such as art materials, building toys, stringing a lacing toys, musical toys like rhythm instruments, xylophones, and keyboards. Teachers tend to stay away from electronic toys and focus more on constructive objects, household objects, and pretend play toys, as electronic toys can stimulate repetitive and isolated play for children with autism. In a therapeutic setting, the teacher will also encourage the child to play with their peers. This helps introduce children to joint play and the concept of sharing.
There are two main purposes for focusing on toy play: building a child’s thinking, language, and social skills, as well as prepare the child well for participating with other typically developing children when they get older. Children with autism are able to acquire new skills through play in a therapeutic preschool program, as play increases creativity and curiosity, strengthens awareness of others, and creates a sense of competence.