How to Play With Your Autistic Child: Tips and Tricks

Playing with your child is crucial for their holistic growth and development. It helps them learn social skills, improves their communication abilities, and strengthens their cognitive abilities.

Ruben Kesherim
November 19, 2023

How to Play With Your Autistic Child: Tips and Tricks

Understanding Autism and Play Therapy

To fully grasp the significance of play therapy for autistic children, it's essential to understand both autism and play therapy.

What is Autism?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. It is characterized by a range of challenges, including difficulties with social communication, repetitive behaviors, and sensitivity to sensory stimuli.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that it varies in severity and presentation from person to person. Individuals with autism may have different strengths, weaknesses, and unique ways of perceiving and interacting with the world around them.

What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy is an evidence-based therapeutic approach that utilizes play to help individuals, including children, express themselves, process emotions, and develop essential skills. It is particularly beneficial for children with autism, as play provides a natural and comfortable medium for communication and learning.

Play therapy sessions are led by trained professionals, such as play therapists or psychologists, who create a safe and supportive environment for the child. Through play, the child is encouraged to explore, experiment, and engage in various activities that promote emotional, cognitive, and social development.

The primary goal of play therapy for autistic children is to enhance their overall well-being and quality of life. It aims to support their social skills, emotional regulation, problem-solving abilities, and self-expression. By utilizing play as a therapeutic tool, children with autism can develop essential skills and overcome challenges in a fun and engaging manner.

Understanding the fundamentals of autism and play therapy sets the stage for exploring the power of play therapy for autistic children. By leveraging the benefits of play therapy, children with autism can make significant strides in their development and overall functioning.

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The Power of Play Therapy for Autistic Children

Play therapy has proven to be a powerful and effective approach for supporting the development of autistic children.

By harnessing the inherent benefits of play, this therapeutic technique provides a safe and engaging environment for children on the autism spectrum to explore, learn, and grow. Understanding the benefits of play therapy and how it supports development can help parents and caregivers better appreciate its potential for their autistic children.

Benefits of Play Therapy

Play therapy offers a range of benefits that can positively impact the lives of autistic children. Here are some key advantages:

  1. Enhanced Communication: Play therapy provides a non-threatening platform for autistic children to express themselves. Through play, children can communicate their thoughts, emotions, and experiences in a way that feels natural and comfortable for them. This can lead to improved verbal and non-verbal communication skills over time.
  2. Social Skills Development: Engaging in play therapy allows autistic children to practice and develop their social skills. By interacting with therapists or peers in a play setting, children can learn important social cues, turn-taking, sharing, and cooperation. These skills can then be generalized to other social situations.
  3. Emotional Regulation: Play therapy helps autistic children develop emotional regulation skills. Through play, children can explore and express their emotions in a safe and controlled environment. This can lead to increased self-awareness, emotional understanding, and the ability to manage and cope with challenging emotions.
  4. Cognitive and Problem-Solving Skills: Play therapy encourages the development of cognitive and problem-solving skills. Through various play activities, children can engage in problem-solving, decision-making, and critical thinking. This can contribute to the development of cognitive flexibility and creative thinking.

How Play Therapy Supports Development?

Play therapy supports the development of autistic children in several ways:

  1. Sensory Integration: Many autistic children experience sensory sensitivities or difficulties. Play therapy can help them explore and integrate sensory experiences in a controlled and structured manner. By engaging in sensory play activities, such as playing with different textures or engaging in movement-based play, children can develop better sensory processing skills and self-regulation.
  2. Imagination and Pretend Play: Play therapy encourages imaginative and pretend play, which can enhance the development of creativity, abstract thinking, and symbolic representation. Through pretend play, children can practice social roles, problem-solving, and emotional expression in a safe and imaginative context.
  3. Strengthening Relationships: Play therapy fosters positive relationships between the child and the therapist or play partner. This relationship serves as a foundation for trust, support, and guidance. The therapeutic bond formed through play can help autistic children feel understood, accepted, and valued, contributing to their overall well-being and development.

By recognizing the benefits of play therapy and understanding how it supports development, parents and caregivers can actively incorporate play therapy techniques into their interactions with autistic children. It is important to remember that play therapy can be complemented by other interventions and strategies, such as educational toys, engaging activities, and playtime routines.

Play Strategies for Autistic Children

When engaging in play therapy with autistic children, incorporating appropriate play strategies is essential to facilitate their development and engagement. Here are three effective play strategies that can benefit autistic children: sensory play, pretend play, and social play.

Sensory Play

Sensory play involves activities that stimulate the senses, such as touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste. Autistic children often have unique sensory needs and preferences, and sensory play provides an outlet to explore and regulate their sensory experiences. This type of play can help improve sensory integration, attention, and overall engagement.

Here are some examples of sensory play activities for autistic children:

  • Water play: Filling a container with water and providing various objects to explore, such as cups, funnels, and water toys.
  • Sand play: Creating a small sandbox or using a sensory table filled with sand and providing tools for digging, molding, and exploring textures.
  • Messy play: Using materials like playdough, slime, or finger paints to engage in tactile exploration and creative expression.

Remember to observe and respect your child's sensory preferences, as some may have sensitivities to certain textures or sensations.

Pretend Play

Pretend play, also known as imaginative play, allows children to engage in make-believe scenarios, which can enhance their social and cognitive skills. Autistic children may struggle with imaginative play initially but can benefit from structured pretend play activities that gradually introduce imaginative elements.

To encourage pretend play with your autistic child, consider the following ideas:

  • Role-playing: Set up a pretend kitchen or doctor's office and take turns playing different roles.
  • Storytelling: Use puppets or toys to act out stories or encourage your child to create their own narratives.
  • Dress-up: Provide costumes, props, and accessories to inspire imaginative play and role exploration.

By incorporating pretend play into your play therapy sessions, you can help develop your child's creativity, problem-solving abilities, and social interaction skills.

Social Play

Social play involves interactions with others, promoting social skills, turn-taking, cooperation, and communication. For autistic children who may struggle with social interactions, structured social play activities can foster social development in a supportive environment.

Here are some examples of social play activities for autistic children:

  • Board games: Engage in board games that encourage turn-taking and social interaction.
  • Building with blocks: Collaborate with your child to build structures or engage in cooperative play.
  • Group activities: Encourage your child to participate in group activities such as art projects or team sports.

By providing opportunities for social play, you can support your child's social-emotional growth and help them navigate social interactions more effectively. Collaborating with therapists, educators, and other parents can also provide valuable insights and resources.

Incorporating these play strategies into your play therapy sessions can create a rich and engaging experience for your autistic child. Remember to follow their lead, create a safe and comfortable environment, and incorporate visual supports when necessary. By tailoring the play strategies to their unique needs, you can maximize the benefits of play therapy for your child's development and well-being.

Tips for Engaging in Play Therapy with Your Autistic Child

Engaging in play therapy with your autistic child can be a rewarding and effective way to support their development. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your play therapy sessions.

Creating a Safe and Comfortable Environment

When engaging in play therapy with your autistic child, it's essential to create a safe and comfortable environment. This can be done by designating a specific play area where your child feels secure and at ease. Eliminate distractions and provide a calm and organized space that encourages focus and engagement.

Consider the sensory needs of your child. Some autistic children may benefit from the inclusion of sensory items such as soft pillows, weighted blankets, or fidget toys. These items can help regulate sensory input and create a soothing environment.

Following Your Child's Lead

One of the fundamental principles of play therapy is following your child's lead. Allow your child to take the lead in choosing the activities and toys they want to engage with. By doing so, you are validating their interests and providing them with a sense of control.

Observe your child's preferences during play and join in by imitating their actions or expanding on their play ideas. This approach fosters a sense of connection and encourages your child's engagement and communication skills. Remember, it's important to be patient and allow your child to set the pace.

Incorporating Visual Supports

Many autistic children thrive with the use of visual supports. Visual aids can help enhance communication, reduce anxiety, and provide structure during play therapy sessions. Consider incorporating visual supports such as visual schedules, choice boards, or social stories to help your child understand the expectations and sequence of activities.

Visual supports can also be used to reinforce play skills and encourage independence. For example, you can create visual prompts that depict the steps involved in a specific play activity or use visual prompts to introduce new play concepts. These visuals can help your child navigate and understand the play therapy session more effectively.

By creating a safe and comfortable environment, following your child's lead, and incorporating visual supports, you can optimize your play therapy sessions with your autistic child. Remember that each child is unique, so it's important to adapt these tips to best suit your child's individual needs and preferences.

Seeking Professional Support

When it comes to play therapy for autistic children, seeking professional support can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the intervention. Play therapists, along with therapists and educators, play a crucial role in providing guidance, expertise, and tailored strategies to promote the development and well-being of autistic children.

Finding a Play Therapist

To embark on the journey of play therapy, it is important to find a qualified and experienced play therapist who specializes in working with autistic children. These professionals have the knowledge and skills to create a safe and supportive environment for play-based interventions. They employ various therapeutic techniques and play strategies to address the unique needs and challenges of each child.

When searching for a play therapist, consider seeking recommendations from healthcare providers, autism support organizations, or other parents of autistic children. It is essential to evaluate the therapist's credentials, experience, and approach to ensure a good fit for your child. Collaborating with a play therapist who understands the nuances of autism can make a significant difference in the progress and development of your child.

Collaborating with Therapists and Educators

Collaboration between therapists, educators, and parents is vital for the success of play therapy. By working together as a team, everyone involved can share valuable insights, observations, and strategies to support the child's growth and development.

Therapists and educators can provide valuable guidance and recommendations for play strategies, educational toys, engaging activities, and playtime routines tailored to the specific needs of autistic children. They can also assist in identifying and addressing any challenges or barriers that may arise during play therapy sessions.

Regular communication and feedback between parents, therapists, and educators are crucial for maintaining a consistent and comprehensive approach to play therapy. Together, they can monitor progress, adjust strategies as needed, and ensure that the child receives the best support and intervention possible.

The Role of Parents in Play Therapy

Parents play a fundamental role in their child's play therapy journey. They are the primary caregivers and advocates for their autistic children, and their involvement in play therapy is essential for its success.

In play therapy, parents are encouraged to actively participate and engage with their child during play sessions. By joining in their child's play, parents can build a stronger bond, gain a deeper understanding of their child's needs, and provide a supportive and nurturing environment. Parents can also learn effective play strategies and techniques that they can incorporate into their everyday interactions with their child.

Furthermore, parents can collaborate with therapists and educators to reinforce the skills learned in play therapy at home. This may include implementing play-based interventions, using educational toys, and creating consistent playtime routines. By integrating these practices into their daily lives, parents can continue to support their child's growth and development beyond the therapy sessions.

By seeking professional support, collaborating with therapists and educators, and actively participating in their child's play therapy journey, parents can maximize the benefits and positive outcomes for their autistic children. Through this collaborative effort, play therapy becomes a powerful tool in promoting the well-being and overall development of autistic children.


What if my child does not seem interested in any activities I suggest?

It is common for autistic children to have limited interests or engage in repetitive behaviors. If your child does not seem interested in any activities you suggest, try observing them to see what they enjoy doing on their own. You can then incorporate those activities into your playtime.

How can I make sure that my child is learning during playtime?

Playtime should be fun and engaging, but it can also be a great opportunity for your child to learn new skills. Try incorporating educational elements into the activities you choose, such as counting or identifying colors.

My child has difficulty with social interaction. How can I help them develop these skills during playtime?

Playing games that involve turn-taking or cooperative play can help your child develop social skills. You can also model appropriate social behavior during playtime and provide positive reinforcement when your child engages in social interactions.

Should I use rewards or incentives to encourage my child to participate in playtime activities?

While it may be tempting to use rewards or incentives, it is important to avoid creating an environment where your child feels pressured or obligated to participate. Instead, focus on making playtime enjoyable and engaging for your child.

How often should I engage in playtime with my autistic child?

The frequency and duration of playtime will depend on your child's individual needs and preferences. It is important to find a schedule that works for both you and your child, whether that means daily play sessions or more sporadic ones.


Playing with your autistic child can be a fun and rewarding experience when done correctly. By choosing the right activities, following your child's lead, using visual aids, keeping playtime short and simple, and being patient and encouraging, you can help your child learn and develop in a supportive and engaging environment.


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