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Best Playtime Activities For Kids with Autism

Playtime activities for kids with autism

Young children love to play, but the types of playtime activities they are drawn to differ, and this is true for kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) as well. Researchers in New York state have identified playtime options that seem to appeal to children with ASD, which may help parents make choices for their kids.

What type of play attracts kids with autism?

Based on the research conducted by Kathy Ralabate Doody, assistant professor of exceptional education at SUNY Buffalo State, and Jana Mertz, program coordinator at the Autism Spectrum disorder Center at the Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, the good news is that kids with autism seem to respond well to a great number of different types of toys and activities.

Basically, the researchers found that kids with autism gravitate toward options that involve repetitive movement, lots of sensory feedback, and play items that allow them to experience cause-and-effect. The study was conducted in a children’s museum that has exhibits designed to attract kids with opportunities to play. Each month, the museum has an event that is open to families who have children with ASD.

Doody noted the top three types of playtime activities that kids with autism enjoyed:

  • The most popular activity allowed children to climb a short staircase, drop a ball, and watch it fall, which they liked because it involved their movement (climbing), an object they could watch that moved, (ball), and they could cause the ball to fall (cause-and-effect factor)
  • Second popular was a windmill that the children could spin, which they enjoyed because of the visual effect (spinning), cause-and-effect (they caused the spinning), and the repetition
  • Third popular was a table filled with rice, which they liked because they could move the rice with their hands and watch it fall between their fingers (both tactile and visual stimulation)

Doody explained that this information about the type of playtime activities children with autism enjoy can help parents, educators, and clinicians provide positive experiences for their kids. She noted that parents can choose engaging play items that can help a child develop a sense of independence.

In addition, “A child who is playing alone…enable[s] the parent or caregiver to engage in other activities, like making dinner or attending to another child.” She suggested play options such aquariums, snow globes, and water sculptures, which provide movement, or toys that have buttons that respond to being pushed with lights, sound, or movement can provide positive sensory stimulation.

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Since every child with autism is different, however, parents may need to experiment a little to identify which types of sensory stimulation—and how much—their child can tolerate and enjoy.

Doody also noted that in their study, children with ASD were most likely to stay away from play opportunities that required them to pretend. Therefore, toys that require kids to pretend they are a type of animal or a cowboy or a cook do not typically engage them.

That’s because, Doody explained, such playtime activities requires something called Theory of Mind, which involves the ability to distinguish between the real world and pretend or mental representations of the world. Children with autism typically have little to no ability to make this distinction.

A goal of better understanding the types of playtime activities best for kids with autism is including such opportunities in playgrounds, after-school programs, and other facilities that offer recreation for kids. As Doody pointed out, such play “encourages social interaction between children with ASD and their peers.”

Other playtime opportunities
In a paper published in Games for Health Journal, autism researchers reported that the use of selected video games can be helpful in treating children with autism. Such games can be beneficial, in part, because they are structured, visually stimulating, provide instant cause-and-effect reinforcement, and they can individually focus on sensory problems that affect children with autism.

Although technically not classified as “playtime,” going to the movies is a form of entertainment that many families enjoy, but those who have an autistic child often find such activities impossible to do. However, a program called Sensory Friendly Films, available at AMC Theatres in dozens of cities around the United States, are an opportunity for families with autistic children to share time engaged in a social activity.

If you have a child with autism, you know it can be a challenge to find activities that he or she enjoys. This new research suggests the best playtime activities for children with autism are those that can thoroughly involve their senses, include movement, and/or have a cause-and-effect element.

Doody KR, Mertz J. Preferred play activities of children with autism spectrum disorder in naturalistic settings. North American Journal of Medicine and Science 2013; doi:10.7156/najms.2013.0603128
Game interventions for autism spectrum disorder. Games for Health Journal 2012 Aug; 1(4): 248-53. Moderator: Bill Ferguson; participants: Cay Anderson-Hanley, Micah O. Mazurek, Sarah Parsons, Zachary Warren.
SUNY Buffalo State