Play is an integral part of a child’s life. A child begins to learn that when an object is picked up, the object has a name and often a sound / movement / action attached to it. For example, ‘a lion’ can roar and stomp around. Children learn about:

1. The world / environment
2. Their social and emotional skills,
3. Problem solving skills
4. And about themselves and how they ‘fit’ in.

Children learn play through observing other children and adults, and by imitation. Normally developing children can apply what is spoken to their play and general conversations.

However, children with autism find it difficult learning the skill of play. They find it difficult to pay attention and engage in co-operative play.

There are three different stages of play that children with autism move through:

1. Functional Play: where they combine two or more play actions together, for example licking a toy ice-cream.
2. Early Pretend Play: This is when the child can add another element to his play by combining another action, for example, your child may have a car and say ‘beep, beep’ and now adds in a car track and tunnel.
3. Later Pretend Play: Expanding on the above play, this stage has the child role playing being another person (e.g. ’policeman / firefighter).

Joint attention is an important stage of early language and play. Joint attention refers to when the child and the parent share a common interest in the same object / game. It provides an opportunity for language to be connected in context to an object or act.

Parents can help their child learn to play. Following is a list of ways parents can begin developing turn taking, eye contact and language:

• Sing nursery rhymes: ‘Row, row, row your boat’; ‘Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake
• Post box, large building blocks, peg puzzles
• Sing songs with a lot of repetition in them: ‘Play School’ and ‘Wiggles’ songs often have repetition in the lyrics.
• Read books: that have simple pictures and words, better still books with pictures that make a sound to grab their attention.
• Bang on pots and containers, tapping on a peg board
• Concrete toys:
– animals: making their noises
– pretend food and utensils: ‘drinking’ from a cup, ‘eating the food’, ‘cutting’ the food’ etc
– bubble blowing: to attempt to get eye contact and stimulate language: example, ‘pop’, ‘blow’, ‘ready steady …..GO’ etc
– Balloons: to attempt eye contact and stimulate language, for example: ‘up, up, up’, ‘ready steady GO (let the air out).

Just as it is important to provide young children with a language rich environment it is really important to pause and ‘see’ what your child may say. Children need time to process what they hear and see before they speak. It is also important that you follow your child’s lead / interest. Allow them to start the play with toys that they enjoy.

Children with autism can learn to pretend play but it takes a lot of modelling and prompts for them to respond.

Once a child has learnt this early pretend play they will move on to a higher level of play. This is when the child is really pretending. Pretend play and exposure to language in context is integral in young children in general BUT especially with children who have limited language or autism as the evidence shows that if children have well developed play skills, they should in turn have better language skills at approximately 8 years of age.