Autism is a developmental disorder, characterized by deficits in communication, social, and restrictive and repetitive behaviors. It is a spectrum disorder and therefore each individual’s range of symptoms will vary.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to play activities, consider the following fun activities for kids with autism to encourage sensory exploration and the development of social and communication skills through play.
My Top 10 Fun Activities for Your Autistic Child
1. Red light green light
Red light green light is a fun way to teach safety instructions and work on impulse control. You can use a visual of a stop light or stop-and-go signs. Or you can just use verbal instructions. When you say ”green light” they walk/run and when you say “red light”, they stop. Because the child doesn’t know when you will say “green light”, it is an excellent way to practice controlling impulses (i.e. controlling the impulse to run before the instruction is presented).
2. Simon Says
Another great way to work on impulse control is through playing Simon Says! Your child has to pay extra attention to whether you say “Simon says” before the instruction. Be sure to take turns playing ‘Simon’, with your child being the one to give the instructions as well.
3. Sensory Table for Sensory Play
There are countless directions you can go with a sensory table. Sensory tables can be created easily with any container and various exploratory stimuli. Sensory play helps children explore different textures and develop motor skills.
Here are several ideas for your sensory table:
- Rocks and dirt
- Water beads
- Pom poms
- Instant snow
Add toys, scoopers, a sensory bottle, and any other items for your child to explore the materials with!
4. Musical instruments
Music brings joy to many of us, including autistic children. Musical instruments can be used simply as a leisure activity, or as a therapeutic approach to teaching communication and social skills.
Try a children’s set of various instruments to see if there is one in particular that your child appears to gravitate toward.
5. Lacing cards or beads
A fun and functional activity, lacing cards or stringing beads can help children develop vital fine motor skills. There are many fun ways to go about this activity, like via lacing cards that have preferred images on them. These vehicle lacing cards are great for a child who loves cars and trucks!
6. Sensory swings
The thing I love about sensory swings is that they can be used for multiple purposes. They can be used to integrate sensory exploration, relax and regulate, or simply have fun!
This childhood favorite is a great choice for your child to explore and get creative. Playing with play-doh is great for exploring different textures, developing fine motor skills, and more!
Puzzles are excellent for developing visual perceptual skills, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. Like any other activity, puzzles can be hit-or-miss. However, they’re a great choice to try with your children. Start small with 3 or 4-piece puzzles. Be sure to assist with prompting at first, to demonstrate how to complete the puzzle. Gradually fade your prompts out, as your child demonstrates an ability to complete the puzzle independently.
9. Marble Runs
A marble run is an enjoyable activity for many children with autism. It provides visual sensory input, as well as an auditory sensation of the marble dropping. Marble runs may help children develop motor planning skills. It also develops creativity with endless maze possibilities.
10. Memory game
Memory is a childhood favorite card game. You lay out a number of cards and take turns picking two cards at a time in search of a match. Playing memory may help develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as strengthen short-term memory. The type of pictures used in a memory game can also add to its fun and functionality.
For example, choose pictures of various emotions to subsequently teach labeling emotions.
11. Obstacle course
If your child enjoys a challenge, you can make an elaborate obstacle course with objects around your home or outside. Climb the monkey bars, then weave through cones, scoot through pool noodles, then hop on over to the finish line! Get creative and have fun!
12. Scavenger hunt
Scavenger hunts can be fun for children of all ages. The best part is that they can be highly individualized to a child’s interests. Does your child love nature and outdoor activities? A scavenger hunt out on a nature walk could be a blast! You can also contrive scavenger hunts with items you hide around the house or outside. Depending on your child’s level of ability and interest, they may even enjoy participating in the scavenger hunt set-up.
13. Ice treasure hunt
By freezing a block of water with toys or other small objects hidden inside, you can create an ice treasure hunt! Allow your child to use different methods to melt or break away the ice to get to the treasure. Some ideas include warm water in a spray bottle, a small hammer, a paintbrush, or a hair dryer. Make guesses about which item will free the toys the fastest, how long it will take to melt, etc.
Why is play important for children with autism?
Oftentimes, we forget just how important play is. Play is much more than a fun activity to pass the time. Children of all ages and abilities learn and develop lifelong skills through play! For children with autism, it is especially important to provide access to free play and structured play activities.
Your autistic child can strengthen communication and social skills through various play activities. Playing is also a great way to explore the sensory world. Autistic children are often either hyper-sensitive or hypo-sensitive to various sensory stimuli, similar to that of sensory processing disorder (SPD). By encouraging sensory exploration in a calm and structured environment, children can identify new sensations that they may be drawn to. Sensory stimulation may help with self-regulation and calming strategies as well.
How do I choose the best activities for my child?
It’s all about trial and error! Your child should be allowed to explore a variety of play activities, both independently and with other people. It’s okay if you try one activity and your child is not interested.
There is likely no need to push or force the activity. Try one activity from this list, or any other play activity that your child may enjoy. Monitor their response to the activity.
If they are unable to vocally/verbally communicate whether or not they like the activity, use their body language and facial expressions as a guide. Are they smiling, laughing, freely interacting in the activity? Or are they frowning, pushing the activity away, etc.?
Through trial and error, you can identify the activities that your child is most interested in and helps them develop skills in areas that may be underdeveloped.
If your child appears to be a sensory seeker, choose activities that incorporate heavy sensory exploration. Sensory activities like sensory tables, sensory bottles, musical instruments, and play-doh, could be excellent choices for your sensory-seeker!
If your child is working on developing fine motor skills, activities that incorporate the use of their fingers can help with this. This might be stringing beads, finger painting, or squeezing play-doh or slime. Conversely, if gross motor skills are an area of need, obstacle courses might be a better option to try.
It’s best to find a good balance in a play activity that helps your child to develop lagging and new skills, while also remaining fun and enjoyable. Play shouldn’t feel like work. If your child perceives lacing cards, for example, as “work”, it defeats the purpose.
How do I figure out what my child enjoys?
Again, this has a lot to do with trial and error. If your child is verbal and can answer this question, then start by asking them what they like to play, what interests them, etc. Use open-ended questions that can aid in the discussion. You could show them pictures or videos of particular activities and ask them what they think, or gauge their body language in response to the activity.
Another way to determine what your child enjoys is to observe what they choose to play during unstructured free time. Take what they are doing and consider other ways to build on those activities to expand their leisure skill repertoire. If they are drawn to blocks, but haven’t quite mastered building with blocks, you could work on expanding on this interest by teaching simple stacking.
Other options include running structured preference assessments. This is something often conducted by BCBAs and other ABA professionals. However, you can learn more about what they are and how to conduct them, as a way to better understand your child’s interests.
What do I do if things go wrong during an activity?
Go into each play activity with a flexible mindset. It’s totally okay if you present an activity for your child and they have no interest in it. Sometimes trying again another day might yield different results. Many children’s interests change from one day to the next.
If you present an activity and your child seems unsure, demonstrate it and talk them through how to play. If they are resistant, offer alternative activities. The purpose of play is not to do things that other people want you to do. Instead, play should be enjoyable and based on one’s own interests and motivations.
What if my child stims through an activity, rather than engaging in the way that was intended?
Self-stimulation, or ‘stimming’, is something that we all do, though it is more prominent in the child with autism spectrum disorder. Rather than engaging with a toy in the intended manner, they may engage in repetitive actions with it. For example, a child may repeatedly press the buttons on a toy phone, rather than having a pretend conversation on the phone.
Stimming serves an important purpose in self-regulation and sensory exploration. Therefore, unless stimming is harmful to the individual or others around them, it typically does not need to be stopped.
If your child plays with a toy or activity in a way that was not intended, you can model the correct way and encourage them to try playing in new ways. However, allow them creative freedom to engage in leisure activities in the way that they find enjoyable.
Play provides endless opportunities for enjoyment and learning. Through play activities, children learn and develop fine and gross motor skills, communication skills, social skills, functional living skills, and more. As you try these activities with your child, be sure to keep in mind that ultimately your child should enjoy their play activities. Play which emphasizes fun and learning provides the greatest benefits.
Srinivasan SM, Bhat AN. A review of “music and movement” therapies for children with autism: embodied interventions for multisystem development. Front Integr Neurosci. 2013 Apr 9;7:22. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2013.00022. PMID: 23576962; PMCID: PMC3620584.