Children diagnosed with autism often do not engage in appropriate play. Play may involve manipulating a toy inappropriately or playing with only one part of a preferred item (the wheels, for example). They may explore toys but rarely play them according to their function. Pretend play and social play are often limited as well.
When teaching appropriate play, start with simple toys and/or activities. Be aware of the items or activities that the child already finds fun. Pair new play skills with fun things! For example, if the child loves a particular movie, play the movie in the background as they explore a new toy. If they really love chips, give them chips intermittently as they look at the pictures of a new book or turn on their favorite song and give them praise as they explore a new play set. Pairing new play skills with items or activities that are already fun will make new play behaviors fun as well. It will then be more likely that the child will want to play appropriately again in the future.
Once they show interest in a new item and/or activity, model appropriate play. Show them how to push the buttons, drive the car across a track, or turn the pages of a book. If they spontaneously imitate any of these behaviors, make sure to reinforce with already established fun activities (such as edibles, praise, movies, etc.).
These tips are also beneficial for teaching social and pretend play. Pair social and pretend play with fun things! Model these behaviors and be sure to reinforce with established fun activities when the child emits any of these appropriate skills. Siblings can be an essential part of the modeling process and can help deliver reinforcing items and activities as well.
Allow the child to naturally explore their environment. Don’t force the child to engage in appropriate play behaviors as this may make new behaviors aversive. Remember to pair, model, and reinforce!