Play Ideas for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Dr. Kim Van Dusen, LMFT, RPT is a mom of two and the owner/founder of The Parentologist w/Dr. Kim, a Southern California based family and lifestyle brand about everything parenting with a therapeutic twist! She has a Master’s in Television Broadcasting and Marital and Family Therapy as well as her Doctorate in Psychology. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a Registered Play Therapist, Graduate Level University Professor, Public Conference Speaker, Blogger/Influencer, and currently works full time as a behavior specialist and case supervisor with families that have children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is a TODAY Show Parenting Team writing contributor, an official LEGOLAND blogger and DISNEY Creator, and a regular on CBS 8 morning local news. She is currently in the process of writing her first book and hosting her own podcast and parenting show!
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are typically encouraged to engage in three primary ways to play: sensory play, role play or pretend play and tactile play.
Sensory play comes the easiest since many of these children are innately sensory seeking.
Role play and pretend play often needs to be learned and practiced but can be a fun and playful way for caregivers and children to practice co-regulation!
Playing in a tactile way that activates the senses can be very calming and fun for your child.
There are so many ways Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can explore their sensory system through play. All these play ideas can be used with children with and without special needs. Play is a universal way a child can explore their world in a way that makes sense to them and cultivate imagination, creativity, and fun!
Try these play ideas to awaken a new and fun way for you to play with your child and have them play in a tactile, fun way! See what your child responds to and build on your play ideas from there!
Play Musical Instruments
Let’s activate those senses with some sound! Music can be very soothing for many children and children love to explore different sounds various instruments make. So, grab some play musical items like a mini piano, maracas, drums, tambourines, harmonica, triangle, symbols, or even a ukulele! If you don’t own any of these, grab some items around your home to make your own instruments like using a spatula and a plastic bowl for drums! Some children may be sensitive to sound and too much noise can be over stimulating and dysregulating, so stay in tune to your child’s behavior and if it becomes too much, stop and try some joint compression or another calming sensory activity.
Water and Sand Play
This is a crowd favorite! Water and sand play are my go-to sensory play activities for children of all ages! Playing with water and sand are soothing to the touch and activates the sensory system on multiple levels. I suggest getting a mini pool and filling it with a small amount of water and some toys of various textures and having your child play in it while touching and exploring all the toys! Don’t forget items like a funnel and or a cup to see the water go in and out like a waterfall! If your child prefers to stay indoors, you can set up something similar in a bathroom sink! Fill the sink about half-way and add some bubbles and toys of various textures and play away! Sand play is like water play and I suggest buying some play sand and filling up a small plastic bin or even a large plastic bowl with some sand and some toys. You can even add some water to make some of the sand wet and keep some of the sand dry. Shovels, sifters, and scoops are also fun in the sand!
Sensory Bin Play
There are endless ways to play with a sensory bin! The more varying textures you have in your bin the better! And you can even make them themed based on your child’s favorite interests like cars, insects, or dinosaurs! Fill the bin with dried rice, dried beans, dried pasta, dried oats, unpopped popcorn, or water beads and then different items like cotton balls, pom pom balls, glitter, buttons, feathers, magnetic letters, puzzle pieces, action figures, toys, foam blocks, clothespins, shells, and other small toys! Then add small cups, funnels, tongs, spoons, empty toilet paper rolls, empty paper towel rolls, and or even an ice cube tray!
Slime and Sensory Dough
Let’s make some sensory dough from scratch! This is a great way to play and engage with your child! All you need is a cup of corn starch and a cup of hair conditioner! Mix them together until they have a dough like consistency. You can even add food coloring to make different dough colors! Store the dough in a plastic sandwich bag and it should last up to a week or more! Making slime is also super fun and you can make glow in the dark slime, color changing slime, slime with glitter, and or slime with sensory objects in it like pom poms, beads, buttons, or even take yellow glue and dried macaroni to make a mock macaroni and cheese slime! Get as creative as you’d like with this sensory activity!
Stuffed Animal Play
There are two fun ways to play with stuffed animals that will help activate the senses and help regulate your child. First, set up a mini zoo for your child. Grab a few preferred stuffed animals and have your child sit or lay down in a safe, comfortable spot. Once they are still, take one stuffed animal and gently push it down to apply light pressure on different parts of their body – primarily their arms, legs, tummy, and or side of their face. This will help calm your child and receive sensory input in a fun playful way using touch and tactile stimulation. If your child is in more of an active phase and needs some extra sensory output, put a group of stuffed animals on the floor and have your child jump off the couch into the pile of stuffed animals. This will also help them feel grounded and regulated in a fun playful way!
Introducing foods of varying textures is very important to the sensory system. Often, we can see, smell, touch, taste, and even sometimes hear food crunching, which stimulates different senses all at once. Use an ice cube tray or a bento box and put various types of food in the different compartments like hummus, ranch dressing, yogurt, carrots, snap peas, raisins, cheese, pickles, fruit, crackers, etc. You can pair preferred foods with some less preferred foods, the key is to have variety! Children will have fun exploring and playing with the different foods and textures and hopefully try some new ones along the way! Another way to use food is to make something like pizza or muffins from scratch! It is a great way to co-regulate and have fun playing and experimenting with different ingredients and then playing with and tasting their creation when it’s done!
There are so many fun ways to role play! Two of my favorite ways are to pretend you are a horse and have your child ride around the house or in the backyard on your back! Another fun role play is to pretend your child is a fire fighter and they can take the outside hose and water it down like a firefighter would! The goal of role playing is to activate creativity and imagination.
A fun way to ignite pretend play is to make a pizza outside using dirt, rocks, sticks, grass, and leaves. The items represent different pizza toppings and a fun way to think outside the box when you play! Another way to pretend play is to take two stuffed animals, puppets, or action figures and have them engage in a playful way with each other. Come up with a story and have the characters play out a scene from a favorite movie or make up your own story!