Let's Play!

Play skills for individuals with Autism can be difficult to teach. Before just jumping in, it's important to look at the why of intervention
Why are play skills being targeted? Is this a necessary skill for intervention? Is the lack of appropriate play skills a true deficit, is it causing issues at school or with peers, or are toys/play items being used for challenging behaviors (such as chewing on the doll's clothing, instead of playing with the doll)?

If this skill is selected for intervention, there are many resources and strategies available to help strengthen play behavior, which will help strengthen socialization behaviors.

Play challenges for many of my clients can include inability to play meaningfully with any toy items (which impacts ability to keep self appropriately on task during the day), mouthing behaviors (which can be dangerous), toy hoarding (which can lead to aggression if a peer tries to join the play), and rigidity with structured games (which can impact being able to play rule based games with other kids). 
Especially for many of my older clients who do want to interact with peers, and do seek to join peer play scenarios, it is essential to first work on play skills and interacting with toys in order for true socialization to occur.

Play skills affect a variety of learning situations, particularly at school. A child who cannot play appropriately might have a hard time making social connections with other kids. This is because for children, much of their communication and interaction occurs through play. This is where bonds of friendship often emerge, and are strengthened over time. 
In a home setting, the same is true for sibling interaction. When I have clients who have poor relationships with siblings, at the heart of the issue there's usually challenges around play skills.

See, play can be pretty important!

Here is a basic hierarchy of play skills, based on typical developmental (*translation: general outline, not iron-clad rules):

  • Solitary play- Carrie will play or engage with a toy, as long as no one sits next to her or tries to interact with her. If someone tries to sit down with Carrie, she turns her back to the person or scoots away. If the person tries to touch her toy, she gets up and walks away.
  • Parallel play- Carrie will play or engage with a toy while in close proximity to other children or adults, and sometimes she will look at how the other child is engaging with their own toy. Mainly, Carrie focuses on her own toy and does not interact with the peer or adult.
  • Interactive play- Carrie will share a toy with a peer or adult, and will take turns appropriately. This could include passing a toy back and forth, or imitating each others play. Carrie may still play silently, or avoid eye contact with the other person.
  • Cooperative play- Carrie will play and engage with another person, while playing with separate toys or sharing one toy. Carrie will look at the other person and make eye contact. This could include building a block tower together, or working together to solve a puzzle.
  • Pretend play- Carrie will engage in imaginative play (either alone or with others) that involves elements of pretend. This could include cuddling a doll and pretending the doll is crying, cooking a pretend meal using Play-Dough, or playing dress up (Dress up play should include an understanding of the character. Such as putting on a fireman hat and pretending to be a fireman).
  • Rule based play- Carrie will play highly social and competitive games with other persons, such as sports, board games, card games, and video games. Carrie can also play games that other children make up on the spot and can easily adhere to rules of the game that constantly change.

You can likely view these basic definitions and already see where your child or client is in their play skill development. 

Depending on the specific individual, some children may progress through levels out of order, in order, or remain at one particular level as they age. Is this an issue?
Again, it depends on what specifically is happening with the individual child and what problems are being caused socially due to play skill impairments.

The most important takeaway is to help support your child or client based on their specific ability to meaningfully form friendships, and interact with peers.

See below for some general (again, NOT iron-clad rules) guidelines for teaching play skills. The thing about play is.... it's play :-)

If teaching it isn't all that fun, then the child probably isn't having much fun. Be creative, go off-script, and also don't forget about mud, water, slime, glue, glitter, etc. Play shouldn't always be nice and neat.

  • It is typically easier to teach play skills with an adult first, before bringing in peers. Adults are more predictable and less demanding than children, and for this reason children with social impairments may easily play or interact with adults but avoid, hit, or refuse to play with peers.
  • It is best to start teaching play skills with simple cause-and-effect toys, such as a Jack- in- The- Box or a keyboard. Avoid imaginative, work -based, or abstract toys, such as puzzles, figurines, dolls, or Play Dough. If you hand a child with limited play skills a lump of Play Dough, they may have no idea what to do with it.
  • Many people don’t realize it, but strong imitation skills can be a pre-requisite of pretend play. A child who cooks a pretend meal, or comforts a “crying” baby doll, is a child who has observed someone else perform these actions and is now acting like so-and-so during their play.
  • In order to teach play skills, you should be fun to play with. That may sound obvious, but if the roles were reversed would YOU want to play with you? 
  • It is so important to minimize problem behaviors during play. Challenging behaviors impede skill acquisition. Conduct a FBA to determine the function of the problem behavior and create a behavior plan. Work on these behaviors before introducing peers into the play sessions.
  • Talk and make sounds during play. Children typically talk or babble while they are playing (even if they play alone) so be sure to model this.


  1. As a parent starting out on an ABA program for my 5 yr old son in the UK, your blog is a real source of encouragement and motivation for me to keep on finding ways to interact with my child. Thank you so very much. :)

    1. Congrats on starting ABA with your son, I hope you find the therapy to be beneficial!

      Thank you for your kind words :-)

  2. You are right! Play should be considered as one of the important activities in a child's schedule. Incorporating Play activities in ABA therapy will help better in a child's development.

  3. Thanks for commenting!

    I completely believe in the necessity of play for children and their development, and it can definitely be incorporated into ABA treatment.

  4. Do you have a citation for the different kinds of play? I have been taught that is what they are and I know that is what they are, but I am looking for a resource to read and cite for a presentation. Thanks!

    1. The original studies on play development goes back decades....I'm talking years. Of course, many replication studies that are more recent are available. You may want to dig into the work of Piaget and Mildred Parten.


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