How to Get Children with Autism to Play

By Michele C. Hollow  @YourCareE
April 04, 2023
How to Get Children with Autism to Play

Many children with autism often find it hard to make friends. They avoid eye contact and can be socially awkward. The first step to socializing your children is to interact with them.

Many children with autism often find it hard to make friends. They avoid eye contact and can be socially awkward. With repetition and prompts from parents, kids can learn proper social skills and successfully interact with their peers. 

“Children learn by observing others,” said Richard Solomon, MD, board certified pediatrician, and founder of the evidence based PLAY Project, an autism early intervention program. (PLAY stands for Play and Learning for Autistic Youngsters.) “Parents are the ones who need to teach their children how to play.”

Solomon, who wrote the book “Autism: The Potential Within,” believes that children like to imitate the behaviors of their peers and family members. “By teaching them how to play and interact, they will begin to break away from parallel play,” he said.


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Parents should start with making play fun.

“Get your kids laughing,” he said. “Play peek-a-boo, make funny faces, and play Patty Cake. Even if they’re not talking, they’re watching. It depends on where on the spectrum they are. The idea is to have fun and to mix it up. Make overtures and requests to take turns. You make a silly face and then ask them to make an even sillier one. These things require a fairly high level of social ability that is not easy for children with autism.”

Solomon suggests you start small with greetings and simple games like peek-a-boo. “Start them as young as 15 months,” he said. “

Early intervention is critically important. The most complex functions of humans are language and social skills, and the core deficits of autism are language and social skills. “That’s why children with autism need repetitive behaviors,” Solomon said.

Then mix it up. Change the process. Solomon suggests that if you’re playing Patty Cake, slightly alter the pattern. “Kids will catch on,” he said.

Varying play patterns make the games more interesting. Do the same routine three times in a row and then slightly change it. While you’re playing with your child, talk to them. You can give them simple one step directions, like “get the toy,” “pick up the ball,” or “bring me the book.”

Also add in make believe play like talking into a toy phone or feeding a baby doll. “Your child will know you are just pretending,” Solomon said. “Kids imitate your actions, which is how they learn. And if you get them laughing, they’ll want to continue playing.”

Then you can build on those fundamentals by having your child interact with a peer. They can play simple games like catch and tag, and then move on to sharing. “At first, you’ll see a lot of parallel play,” he said. “That’s why parents need to mediate.”

In his book, Solomon follows Jacob and his family from when Jacob is first diagnosed with autism up through kindergarten. (Jacob is a composite of many of Solomon’s autistic patients.) He works closely with Jacob’s parents to guide them about handling their son’s social awkward behaviors, temper tantrums, sibling rivalry, picky eating, and even sleep problems. 

Solomon recommends keeping play dates short, up to an hour at first. Before the play date begins, plan activities and be on hand to make sure everything goes smoothly. If your child is having a good time, schedule weekly play dates. 

It’s important to supervise play dates for young children. Emphasize taking turns; you’ll be able to make sure that your child and his friend get equal amounts of play time.

Solomon also suggests finding a good social skills program that addresses awkward behaviors. “I call it finishing school,” he said. 


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April 04, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN