Registered NDIS Provider.

How to support your autistic child with sensory play

Autistic children enjoy and learn through play, just as typically developing children do. By helping your child’s play develop, you also help your child learn and practise new skills and abilities. These skills are important for your child’s overall development. They include the ability to explore the environment, copy others, share things, take turns, imagine what other people are thinking and feeling, and help with communication skills.

Sometimes, autistic children may play in a slightly different way to other children. They may play the same game or read the same book over and over again. They may find it difficult to develop symbolic play skills without help. For example, they may enjoy placing train engines on a track, but may be less likely to enact scenes or make sound effects. 

By being aware of this difference, you can help your child learn how to play and develop their skills by playing together with them. When you play together, you can model types of play as well as skills for your child. Playing with your child is also a great way to tune in to your child and build your relationship.

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There are different types of play, which often develop in stages. I will briefly explain each type of play, and give you some examples of play ideas which you can do at home.

  • exploratory play
  • cause-and-effect play
  • toy play
  • constructive play
  • use a routine
  • physical play

Exploratory play-

Exploratory play is when children explore objects and toys, rather than playing with them – for example, feeling the softness of a teddy bear or looking at the shape of the dolls hands.

To help your autistic child with this type of play, you can encourage your child to explore objects around them as part of everyday activities. For example, when your child is having a bath, you could encourage your child to splash water, rub soap between their fingers, pour water from a cup and so on.

We love a sensory table set up at our house for exploratory sensory play. You can include a sensory item such as coloured water beads, water, sand or rainbow rice. Then add any other house hold items you have such as cups, bowls, spoons or a sieve, and VOILA! You have an amazing pouring/scooping/measuring/tactile play activity!

Our fidget toys are also perfect for exploratory play, such as our squishy water orb ball and Smooshos colour changing jumbo balls.

Cause and effect play

Cause-and-effect play is when children play with toys that require an action to illicit a result – for example, pressing a button to make something "pop" up.

This type of play teaches children that their actions can affect different things, and gives them a sense of control in their play. It can be a chance for your child to learn to copy what you’re doing, take turns and ask you for help.

Some examples of this type of play include hitting the xylophone or the drum with the drum stick and hearing the noise it makes on a music set, or tipping a rainmaker rattle upside down and watching the beads cascade to the bottom and make a noise.

Toy play 

Toy play is learning how to play with and use toys in the way they were designed to be used – such as pushing a toy car, talking on a a toy phone or riding a bike.

Depending on what toys your child likes, toy play can help your child develop thinking, problem-solving and creative skills as they figure out what to do with their toys. Children also learn through a psychological term called "observational learning" or "modelling". The premise of this idea is that your child learns by watching your behaviour and them copying or mimicking them. 

Here’s how to help your autistic child with toy play:

  • Sit in front of your child so your child can look at you, communicate with you, and see what you’re doing. This also makes it easier to engage your child in play.
  • Offer two or three toys your child enjoys. This gives your child a choice, but doesn’t overwhelm your child.
  • Let your child lead the play. For example, if your child is spinning the wheels of a car, you could spin them too. Then turn the car the right way up and run it along the floor saying, ‘Brrm, brrm’. Or if your child likes opening and closing doors on toys, start with this and then add toy figures walking in the doors. We love our Lubulona car and bus as they have peg people which you can take in and out.
  • Encourage your child to play if your child doesn’t copy you. You could say, ‘Your turn to drive the car’. Take your child’s hand and place it on the car, then move the car across the floor together.
  • Reward your child with praise and positive feedback like ‘You made that car go really fast. Good job!’
  • Show your child short videos of other children playing with toys. This can give your child ideas about what to do.

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Constructive play 

Constructive play is when children build or make things. It involves working towards a goal or product – for example, completing a jigsaw puzzle, making a tower out of blocks, or drawing a picture.

This type of play can help children develop motor skills, practise thinking and problem-solving skills, and enjoy being creative.

You can encourage your autistic child’s constructive play by showing your child what to do. For example, you could try building a tower with blocks to show your child how to do it, or you could use pictures or a video that shows how to build a tower. 

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Incorporate a daily routine

Many professionals are urging parents and teachers to incorporate various sensory ideas into their daily routine. Maintaining a routine for children with autism is an important factor in their development. Aim to combine sensory play into their day-to-day plan. This will then help them process information, including the atmosphere and surroundings- that can help individuals with autism become more comfortable in various social situations.

A great example of this is our set of 72 routine cards. Using these cards instills a sense of routine and predictability into their daily life, which will result in less anxiety about what will happen next. By taking a look at the example below, by using the card "quiet play" in the days routine, the child understands the expectation to play quietly during that time frame.

Help develop their motor skills

One of the most overlooked aspects of sensory therapy is coordination and overall physical development. 

Two of the big factors of improving physical skills is to develop both fine motor skills and gross motor skills. These also contribute to sensory exploration and can help children with autism develop new skills and confidence with their physical abilities. 

Fine Motor Skills- involve hand dexterity and fine control movements using our fingers and hands. This can be as simple as picking up small objects, or holding a pencil and writing. It helps with coordination as well as allowing our little ones to experiment with their sense of touch.

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Gross Motor Skills- This refers to playful activities that are physical, rough and
tumble play. This can be activities that involve squatting down, jumping, walking, climbing, throwing, balancing and running. 
This type of play gives your child whole-body exercise and helps them develop gross motor skills. It can also be a chance for your child to explore their environment and interact with other people. We love our Pikler Triangle climbing equipment range for active play at home.

I hope this has given you some ideas with how to interact, explore and engage with your child and create a happy learning environment.

Sarah x

the sensory specialist melbourne

*Credit: some information was sourced from Raising Children Network
0451 347 047
Bentleigh VIC 3204
by appointment only