When discussing children with ASD in the context of autism play activities, autism and imagination, or speech activities for autistic kids, it’s important to understand that pretend play activities are necessary to ensure higher-level communication skills by the age of 8-9-years-old.
Canadian non-profit organization The Hanen Centre says that pretend play has positive results on autistic kids’ speech.
In This Article
- Autism Pretend Play Activities that Work
- What is Creative and Imaginative Play?
- Autism and Imagination: Why do Kids with ASD Struggle?
- How Can Creative and Imaginative Play Skills Be Improved?
- How Does Creative and Imaginative Play Impact Communication?
Autism Pretend Play Activities that Work
Children on the autism spectrum often struggle with creative and imaginative play. And this type of play carries a lot of weight in communication skills, another area where these children can struggle. But creative and imaginative play can be improved, and that improvement can positively impact their communication skills.
What is Creative and Imaginative Play?
Creative and imaginative play is one of the most complex forms of play. This type of play is where children create their own storylines, role-play, or use toys or everyday objects in innovative ways. Creative and imaginative play is how children develop socially, emotionally, verbally, cognitively, and even physically.
Autism and Imagination: Why do Kids with ASD Struggle?
Children on the Autism Spectrum can greatly struggle in creative and imaginative play for several reasons. Firstly, one of the dominant characteristics of autism, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is restricted and repetitive behaviors or interests. For many of these children, that may manifest in their play.
For example, they may have a restricted interest in a specific TV show or movie. That storyline or those characters follow into their play, and they may repeatedly script those memorized storylines rather than creating their own.
Play is often talked about as if it is a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.
Children impacted by autism may also have difficulty thinking symbolically or abstractly. For example, they may stack blocks repeatedly to create a tower but may not be able to pretend it is a building like a school or parking garage. They may enjoy playing inside a large box but lack the skills to think of the box as a pirate ship or police station.
The ability to imitate others is how many children learn play skills. However, children with autism may not even recognize other children are around when playing, therefore not learning from them to imitate age-appropriate play.
For these reasons, teaching children with autism to play creatively and imaginatively may need a more direct approach.
How Can Creative and Imaginative Play Skills Be Improved?
In as much as independent play is an essential skill for children with autism to learn, playing creatively and imaginatively depends on you playing with your child. They need you to model over and over what that looks like. They need you to excite them to want to engage, which means they have to be fun activities!
In addition to teaching them creative and imaginative play skills, you are teaching them how to play socially. The following suggestions can help you get started!
- Meet Them Where They Already are
Your child probably already knows multiple characters and storylines from favorite shows. Help them to combine different worlds in play. For example, collect figures from Toy Story and Finding Nemo and verbally model the characters engaging in unique ways that differ from the original plots. Using familiar characters in unfamiliar ways is a great place to start.
- Provide Open-ended Toys
Once children can use familiar characters creatively, it’s time to move to non-themed toys, open-ended toys. These are toys that can be used in multiple ways and aren’t single-function or character-themed. These would be toys such as different types of blocks and building materials, a dollhouse and toy people, or toy vehicles.
An excellent starting point is to use a non-themed toy and pretend it is a familiar character. For example, use a train that is not a Thomas the Train and call it Thomas! Use a dollhouse with toy people, pretend they are family members, and act out familiar scenes such as dinner or bath time. In this step, we are taking something not familiar and attaching it to something familiar.
- Provide a Variety of Objects that can be Used Symbolically as Something Else
This is where you can really begin to help boost their imagination! For example, a cardboard paper towel tube can be used as a telescope or wooden spoons and a pot as a drum and drumsticks. Build a fort in your living room with sheets and crunch up construction paper as a pretend fire. Setting up play activities such as these are fun for your child and take their creativity and imagination to the next level.
- Role Play
Provide your child with various costumes such as a pirate hat or apron and items such as a toy doctor kit or pretend tools. Take turns role-playing. For example, you are the doctor and your child, the patient. Then reverse the roles.
Role-playing can be especially important in building creative and imaginative play skills and preparing them for real-world situations such as visiting a doctor.
- Silly Stories
Place object magnets or pictures or small toys of random objects inside a box or other container. Take turns, and without looking, select two and make up a story about them. For example, if you select a picture of a bird and a banana, the story might be, “The bird landed on the banana.”
Once your child has mastered telling a story with two, move to three, then to four. After telling the first version of the story, you can even take the objects selected and place them in a different order to tell a new silly story! This activity is very important for a child with autism!
How Does Creative and Imaginative Play Impact Communication?
When they are just learning to communicate, children on the spectrum may repeat memorized lines from a movie, or only want to have a conversation about a preferred topic, or may only ask or answer questions they have been directly taught.
However, a conversation between two people is not rehearsed or scripted, it’s creative. Teaching children to use their imagination in play helps build the skills they need to have spontaneous conversations. Play is where our children learn the skills they need to exist in the world around them. And you, the parent, are the best playmate for the job!
Activities for autistic kids that specifically engage their creativity and imagination are things to work on, as well as to enjoy!
Freelance Writer, Special Needs Parent Advocate