This is the start of our CliniKids blog series about play. This week, Speech Pathology Lead Aria May, pictured, explains why play is so important and why it can be challenging for children on the autism spectrum.
Over the coming weeks we will aim to explore what play is, different play levels, and look at some general strategies to support your child in play. We will continue to use the SCERTS framework (see our previous blog post here) to think about supports for your child’s communication level.
You already have lots of experience and knowledge around play. After all, you spent your childhood playing (and hopefully still have opportunities for play!).
Though we all have this experience, play is often misunderstood.
There are many different ways to describe play, however, there are some things that most researchers, clinicians, and education professionals agrees on:
Play is fun – a child doesn’t play to learn, they are playing because they enjoy it!
Play is active – it involves interaction with people objects or ideas.
Play is meaningful – even if the meaning isn’t clear to people around the child.
Play is self-chosen and self-directed – the child is in control and decides what and how to play.
Play helps explore the unknown.
There is no right or wrong way to play. It’s not our right to decide what is fun or what is play for someone else. Play can be many things, from splashing around in a puddle, playing ‘doctors’ with teddy bears and dolls, playing fetch with your dog, dress ups, Monopoly, painting, and peekaboo.
So why is play so important?
The United Nations sees play as a human right for all children and it is important for so many reasons. Play helps the brain learn and uses and develops physical skills too. Through play, children can connect with others, allowing friendships to develop and building social skills and communication. Play can also help develop creative thinking, flexibility and problem solving. Providing opportunities for children to play and develop play skills is important in itself.
What might be hard about play for children with autism?
Many children need extra support to develop their play skills. We know children with autism are more likely to find certain types of play difficult and challenges with play form part of the criteria of an autism diagnosis.
Children with autism may find the following difficult in play:
Noticing and copying actions.
Changing from a preferred play activity to something else or wanting to play in a similar way every time.
Sharing objects and attention with others (joint attention).
Coming up with ideas in play and using storytelling skills.
Pretend play and attaching ‘symbolic’ meaning to play (e.g., imagining that a doll represents a person).
Problem solving and understanding another player or character’s point of view.
How a child can move their body and hands will also have an impact on the type of things they can play with.
Research has shown that play partners are more likely to model play that is too hard for children with autism. There is a tendency to model at a child’s cognitive or chronological age level, rather than their actual play level. We know that supporting your child at their play level and being interested in their play can support play skills. We need to meet children where they are at.
Connecting with others in play
We know communication and play skills are interlinked. You need to develop early communication skills to be an effective play partner, though in play you can in turn support early communication skills. One important skill is developing the ability to attend to another person – joint attention. You need to notice and be aware of the other play partner to play with them. This is the skill that we use when we draw attention to something that we want or think is interesting. For example, a child may hold up a broken animal figurine and look at you and then back at the figure, to share with you that it’s broken, or a child may point to some blocks that are out of reach and look at you and back to the blocks, to ask for them.
Play and the SCERTS communication stages
We discussed the evidence-based SCERTS model in our previous blog post and you can find more information about SCERTS here. You can use the SCERTS communication stage (e.g. Social, Language and Conversation partner) to think about your child’s play. We know there can often be a mismatch between children’s play skills and their communication skills, so it is important to keep in mind your child’s individual skills. In the next blog post we will delve a little more into types of play and how you can support your child’s play skills.
Playing with a Social Partner(someone who communicates with gestures, behaviour and vocalisations (e.g. noises, sounds):
If your child is a Social, Language or Conversation Partner, over the next few weeks, think about…
WHO your child likes to play with? (e.g. siblings, adults, peers, older or younger children)
WHAT your child likes to play? (e.g. with cars, animals, water, board games, singing)
WHERE your child prefers to play? (e.g. in a small clutter-free space, in a bigger space)
WHEN your child has the most successful play? (e.g. after dinner or first thing in the morning)
HOW your child likes to play? (e.g. in the same way every time, on their own or with others)
Watch and observe your child playing and see what happens when they take charge in the play.
Playing with a Language Partner(someone who communicates with single words, short phrases, symbols, pictures, and signs):
Playing with a Conversation Partner(someone who communicates with more creative phrases and sentences):