Learning How to Play

Children with Autism love structure and routine, they need to understand what they should do. It’s usually when your child doesn’t know what to do with himself that he will engage in inappropriate behaviour, get frustrated and become difficult to manage.

Structured play is often the beginning of your child learning how to learn. There are different kinds of play:

1. Sensory motor play
2. Constructive play
3. Pretend play

All children need to learn these types of play but children with Autism will learn them in a different way. To be able to understand how your child plays watch him in a free play situation with a variety of toys.

Sensory Motor Play

Sensory motor toys e.g. blocks, sound makers, rattles, squeaky toys, bubbles, balloons, ball, playdough, water play in the bath, crayons etc. Large toy play outside. Swinging, rocking, rough and tumble play, interactive social baby games e.g. peek-a-boo, round and round the garden etc.

Sensory motor play is important for your child because it helps them to learn about turn taking, joint attention, being able to predict things, looking, listening and paying attention. Even if you feel your child is beyond this level it is important to continue to play these games and help him to explore and understand his environment.

Constructive Play

This will start with your child learning to understand cause and effect. If your child does something to a toy - a press, a touch, a throw, something will happen as a result. Children need to learn to understand this, and you may need to prompt them in the early stages.

Pretend Play - Imitation and Copying

Children with Autism need to learn to copy other people or imitate. We all learn through imitation. It is a very important step.

Don't expect your child to start to imitate you. You will have to take the lead and imitate him. Copy what he/she is doing with toys and objects, copy his/her sounds and movements and see if he/she notices that you are copying him/her.

For example: - If he/she bangs 2 blocks together you do exactly the same. If he/she claps his hands you do that. Even if he/she doesn't respond straight away keep trying. This may get his/her attention. It means that your child is starting to be aware of other people. This is the first important step in imitation. You may need to get another adult to help your child copy what you do for example if you want your child to copy you waving you wave first, then the other adult waves and helps your child using hand over hand movement to wave back and copy what you did.


At this early stage in play you are aiming to develop shared interest and attention. The young child with Autism may not realise that you can both be interested in the same thing and can both enjoy the fun. This may mean you will have to:- invade his/her space, bring him/her close to you, attract his/her attention. Example:-

James tends to run around with a toy car in his hand. He does not respond to his name. His mummy was shown how to approach him with another one of his favourite cars, take him to a small table, both sit down momentarily, drop their cars into a box, then James chooses to get up and run again. Before he goes Mum praises him, claps hands, says good boy or good sitting. Then she lets him go for another run before repeating this simple activity over and over again. She has done well even though this looks to be limited, she has got his attention and encouraged simple imitation and cooperation.

This can be done in other ways using, bubbles, balloons, sound makers, rough and tumble play. Whatever your child's interests are. Your child is also learning a very important routine.

First - Then

Whatever he/she does from now on, he/she needs to know;

  • First I do this
  • Then I can do my own thing

When he/she is ready to work at a table, you can structure up activities. (how you can structure activities is discussed later) If your child has difficulty in knowing where to play, you may need to give him/her somewhere he/she can play or do his/her work. If you can manage it, have a consistent and clearly defined place for a little table and chair where there are no distractions. Make sure the television/radio etc are turned off.

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It is important to get visual structure in place. Encourage your child to work from left to right i.e. have new activities placed to the left of the table and have a finished box on the floor to the right of the table. He/she needs to learn and understand that most activities move from left to right. He/she also needs to learn that all activities have

  • a start
  • a middle
  • a finish

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When play activities are presented in this way your child can learn to complete them more successfully and also more independently. His/her difficulties with organising himself/herself to plan what to do, make decisions and complete things are easily overcome when the activity is set in an organised way with a clear start and finish.

Teach a Positive Way to Play

Using a structured play area and structured activities to develop play skills helps your child begin to understand because he/she can now see: -

  • What he/she has to do
  • How much he/she has to do?
  • When he/she will be finished?
  • What will happen next?

By always ensuring that you answer these questions in a visual way like this you will find that your child will become more cooperative and in some cases calmer.

Very often for the young child with Autism, structured play is the beginning of how he/she makes sense of the world; which up until now may have been a very unpredictable place. For most of the children who received Keyhole® Therapy, completing structured play activities was often the first skill achieved in the programme. Although they usually resisted the introduction of this new routine at the beginning, most of the children quickly came to look forward to their structured play times where they could experience a sense of satisfaction in actually completing something and learning new skills. 

This is a positive play routine!

Children with Autism try to make sense of the world by developing routines. They often choose their own individual way of doing things and usually these inflexible routines are non-negotiable! Children with Autism like routines once you teach them a new way to do something using positive routines, they will usually follow that routine in the future. Knowing this, teach your child a positive play routine, which will help him/her learn to play more appropriately.

If your child is highly active, teach the routine with only one step at a time e.g. if you have a four piece inset board, give it to your child with only one piece missing, therefore he only has to put one piece into the puzzle to finish. You can build up on this when you think he/she will be able to cope with more pieces. You
will be able to use this routine with other activities.

Play Activities for All Levels of Development

In most cases you can select appropriate play materials and activities depending on your child’s level of ability. Here are some ideas that could be used to help young children, at each step of development, learn about structured play.

First Steps of Structured Play

Use wooden inset puzzles, posting/‘put-in’ task, stacking rings, shape sorters, large building blocks, peg boards, large beads on a spindle etc. There are lots of different toys on the market which may give you ideas about what to make, buy or borrow. 

Put-in Tasks

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Posting Pegs                                       Posting Cards

Building Tasks

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Large Blocks                                       Stacking Rings


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Simple Insert Puzzle                          More Difficult Insert Puzzle

Do talk to other families and the professionals involved with your child about where are the best places to get the most suitable toys. You may already have plenty of toys at home which you just need to adapt to meet your childs structured play needs

Structured Play as your child moves past the First Steps

Introduce activities with only one stage. Your child needs to learn 3 things to achieve independence in play. Children with Autism are very good at learning skills, but often have difficulty in starting, working through and finishing an activity. Structured play will help them learn these.

  • How to start
  • What to do
  • How to finish

Here are some examples of this type of structured play.  

Sorting Tasks

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         Size Sorting                                                                   Object Sorting

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     Folder Activity for Shape Sorting                            Colour Sorting


How To Take Play Further: Teaching Pretend Play

Your child will usually have a preference for logical play with a clear end goal. Pretend play is much more difficult for your child. To play in an imaginative way children need to have acquired

  • good attention
  • some language comprehension
  • the ability to organise themselves and their things
  • the ability to plan out what they are going to do

It is possible to teach your child some simple pretend play sequences so that he/she will be able to play with other children when he/she is ready.

Is your child ready to learn pretend play?

  • Has he/she established good attention?
  • Can he/she imitate actions and/or words in a meaningful way?
  • Does h/shee understand simple directions and questions?
  • Is he/she able to show joint attention during play with objects?
  • Does he/she look at you when you play together?
  • Is it easy to get his/her attention during free-play?
  • Does he/she show an appropriate interest in symbolic toys? E.g. tractors, dolls, tea sets, toy food, cash registers

Don’t be tempted to move on too quickly. If your child shows few of these indicators it is best to continue with structured constructive and sensory motor play as this is what will benefit your child most at this time.

If your child does seems ready for Pretend Play

  • You must first assess what pretend play skills your child already has established
  • What type of play interests your child most e.g. home corner, farm, shop
  • Teach a simple pretend play sequence that your child can imitate and repeat
  • Keep the amount of steps to a minimum to avoid your child becoming confused
  • Reduce the amount of language you use with your child to make it easier for him/her to understand
  • Reduce distractions

Example of Pretend Play with Farm

  • Hook up tractor and trailer
  • Put animals onto trailer
  • Drive tractor and trailer
  • Put animals in a pen

Example of Doll Play

  • Dress doll
  • Brush doll’s hair
  • Give doll a bottle
  • Put doll to bed

Example of Shop and Home Play

  • Put shopping into the basket
  • Pay at the till
  • Take shopping to kitchen and sort out - Cook dinner for mum and dad - Pretend to clean house- Set table

Once your child has learned the sequence you may want to teach him/her some repetitive phrases, which he/she can learn to say. If you say the phrase a few times he/she may echo it back and then begin to use the phrase as part of the routine e.g.

  • Feed Dolly
  • Wash dishes
  • Dinner cooking/dinner ready
  • Cows field
  • Drive tractor

Your child's pretend play skills and interest in playing with imaginative toys will develop slowly when he/she is ready. Some children with Autism will not like pretend play. As always, be guided by your child when deciding what to help him/her learn.

Top Tips For Structured Play

  • Prepare a distraction-free area where your child can learn new play skills
  • Use a left to right routine
  • Use a Finished Box
  • Teach activities that are within your child's capabilities
  • Teach activities for independence
  • Fade out all prompts as soon as you can

Allow your child to complete easy activities with you just supervising from a distance and using as few prompts as necessary.

  • Vary tasks to keep your child interested and stimulated
  • Include your child's interests as long as they don't cause him to be too distracted or excited
  • Persevere with poor co-operation as you try to establish any new routine
  • If poor co-operation persists, review the tasks and the work routine
  • Teach pretend play when your child is interested and ready
  • Start and end with an easy task that your child can do with little help from you
  • Introduce new or slightly harder tasks in the middle of the structured playtime

If things don’t seem to be working ask yourself

  • Are the tasks too difficult?
  • Are there any distractions?
  • Are you following a consistent routine?
  • Has he/she got bored? You may need to think again!
  • Does he/she understand what he has to do

You might like to make a record of your child's likes and dislikes.  What he/she is able or not able to do now and also what he/she is not yet ready to do.