Parallel Play and Autism: How to Teach an Autistic Child to Play

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Children with Autism Do Play

Contrary to popular assumptions, people with autism do play, however the way they do so is different from how most children play. Typical children play by interacting with each other or creating worlds where characters interact (playing housing, tag, a tea party with dolls). Children with autism are less stimulated by these kinds of games because they rely on skills the child lacks or is deficient in, such as an understanding of body language or facial expressions (for example how to tell when “it” plans to change directions to “tag” them). Because of this, many autistic children prefer controlling and interacting with their environment, typically seen in “stimming” (spinning, flashing lights, rocking, and much more) which also has the secondary benefit of comforting and calming some children, although others become highly excited.

Parallel Play and Autism

Many children with autism engage in what is called “parallel play”. Parallel play is what happens when two or more children play near each other without interacting. While some children with autism prefer to play alone, others simply do not know how to go about playing with others. Parallel play and autism do not have to be negative experiences. You can also use the child’s tendency to use parallel play to teach them new skills.

Teaching Your Child to Play

Odd though it may seem, you should first find out if your child wants to play with others before trying to make them, otherwise your awkward child may suffer from bullying or will become annoyed at being forced to do something they are not good at or have no interest in learning to do well.

Expressions, body language and interactions do not come naturally to an autistic child, but rather are learned with time and experience. Essentially, and as many adult high functioning autistics have expressed, the more successful autistics are those who have learned to act well and quickly enough for people to not notice their awkwardness. “Playing” is merely another experience, one which some children prefer not to share with others, since it may be a time when they do not need to act or become someone that may feel unnatural to them.

Engage your child at their level. Don’t punish them by forbidding stimming, try experiencing it with them. Spin in circles with your child (parallel play), and spin your child in circles (reciprocal play). Ask them to try to spin you. Show them that you are interested in their interests and want to participate with them. If your child can talk, teach them how to approach other kids.

Saying “Do you want to play?” may seem obvious to you, but it may not be to your child. Talk to your child about their interactions. Ask what happens if other children approach and what they say. Sometimes children with autism simply do not realize they are being invited to participate. Your child may need your help to interpret these interactions and learn appropriate responses.

If your child has special interests, go to a fan club or meet up group about those interests. This kind of interaction is a preferable starting point for many people with autism because the “rules” of the interaction are easier to understand. For example, at a horse fan club the discussion will most likely revolve solely around horses, horse care, horse products and how much everyone likes horses. In time some of these “horse loving friends” may teach your child skills that can be used in other situations, such as how to start a conversation or express interest in something.

Parallel play and autism are linked and while the name is called “play” the behaviors exhibited will stay with your child through their adulthood. You can nip bad behaviors such as interrupting and ignoring other’s comments in the bud simply by learning to engage and draw out your child using their natural inclination for parallel play.


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