Autism And Play: Why Fun Enhances ABA Therapy in Virginia

Autism and play represented by a young child's hands making patterns in blue sand.

Autism and play: The fact is that kids love playing. Play is an essential part of a child’s development. It is natural and spontaneous, bringing children joy while contributing significantly to their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive growth.  

For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), play holds an even higher significance. Challenges in social interaction, communication, sensory issues, and repetitive behaviors characterize autism. Many behavioral difficulties neurodivergent kids face translate to playing differently from neurotypical kids, struggling with telling stories with their toys or communicating during interactions. This incorrect belief can lead some to think that kids with autism don’t look forward to or benefit from playtime.

Play is, in fact, a powerful tool for kids with autism, enabling them to overcome challenges, develop essential skills, and reach their unique potential. By embracing the therapeutic value of play, we can create inclusive and supportive environments where all players can participate.

At ABA Centers of Virginia, we specialize in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, a widely used intervention for children with autism that recognizes the significance of play and incorporates it into therapy regimens to teach new skills.

Engaging children with autism in play-based activities helps them acquire essential social skills and facilitates their overall development. This article celebrates playtime and explains why autism and play go hand in hand.

The Benefits of Play

Play is crucial for the development of various skills in kids. It fosters cognitive growth by enhancing problem-solving abilities, creativity, and imagination. When children participate in imaginative play, such as pretending to be characters or engaging in make-believe scenarios, they develop crucial cognitive skills, including abstract thinking, symbolic representation, and planning.

Play is a self-motivated and enjoyable activity characterized by flexibility and creativity that children join for pleasure, learning, and exploration. As mentioned in the National Library of Medicine, play can take various forms, including imaginative, physical, constructive, and social. Each type of play contributes to different aspects of development. 

Play also contributes significantly to emotional and social development. Through play, boys and girls learn to interact with others, share, negotiate, take turns, and develop empathy. They practice social skills, such as understanding emotional cues, facial expressions, and body language. Play enables kids to express themselves while developing emotional regulation and coping mechanisms for challenging situations. 

Furthermore, play improves physical development by focusing on fine and gross motor skills, coordination, and body awareness. Running, climbing, and jumping helps children develop their muscles, balance, and coordination. Building with blocks or solving puzzles enhances fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

How Autism and Play Sets Developmental Milestones

Play establishes developmental milestones in children. Babies engage in exploratory play during infancy, investigating objects, textures, and sounds. This form of play helps them develop sensory integration skills and spatial awareness.

Kids engage in pretend symbolic play as they grow. This type of play involves substituting an object’s purpose and creating imaginary scenarios. This crucial milestone indicates the development of abstract thinking, language skills, social understanding, and problem-solving.

How Does Autism Impact Play?

Neurodivergent children are unique and exhibit distinct characteristics in play behavior. These arise due to the social interaction, sensory processing, and communication challenges they experience. Understanding these particularities can show how kids diagnosed with autism benefit from play.

1. Playing Alone – Children with autism often entertain themselves, known as solitary play. They may prefer repetitive or stereotyped behaviors, focusing intensely on specific objects and activities. This type of play can involve repetitive movements, lining up toys, or spinning wheels rather than pushing a car.

Self-directed play behaviors serve many purposes for children with autism, like creating a predictable environment with no unwanted sensory interference. Children with ASD also develop intense interests in objects, specific topics, or activities. Their solitary play may revolve around these focused interests, allowing them to explore and deepen their knowledge of the subject.

Some with ASD struggle to interpret social cues like body language, nonverbal communication, or facial expressions. Their preferences mean remaining outside a group as they don’t always derive the most out of playing directly with other kids.

2. Symbolic, Pretend, or Imaginative Play – Symbolic play, also known as pretend play or imaginative play, is another important developmental milestone that allows children to use actions and objects to represent something entirely different. It requires creating and acting out imagined scenarios, engaging in make-believe play, and using objects symbolically and creatively. This development usually happens in kids around 2 to 3 years old and continues throughout childhood. 

However, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often face challenges in engaging in symbolic play. They struggle with playing pretend, telling stories, or imaginative thinking in general. They may need coaching to grasp the abstract nature of objects, for example, failing to understand that a crate can be a chair or a branch can be a sword.

Play Within the Context of ABA Therapy

In ABA therapy, play is often used as a naturalistic teaching approach, where therapists incorporate play-based activities to target specific goals. Therapists create a play environment that encourages learning by utilizing the child’s interests and motivations. They may use games, toys, and make-believe social scenarios to teach language development, problem-solving, and social skills.

ABA therapists employ prompting, reinforcement, and shaping strategies to guide children through play-based activities. By breaking down complex skills into manageable steps, therapists can gradually teach children with autism new skills. For example, if the goal is to teach turn-taking, therapists may use a game where the child takes turns with the therapist or a peer. A child can learn concepts and generalize them to other contexts through positive reinforcement, receiving a reward for each healthy action.  

ABA therapy is the gold standard therapy for children with autism. It focuses on teaching and reinforcing healthy behaviors while reducing challenging behaviors. Play is an integral part of an ABA regime to engage children and teach them meaningful new skills.

Encourage Play Frequently

Below are some simple techniques for parents that ABA therapists use to encourage play: 

  • Structured Play Activities: Introduce structured play activities with clear rules and expectations. This technique can help children with autism understand the play context and develop appropriate social skills, such as following instructions, taking turns, and sharing.
  • Peer Modeling and Support: Lead the way during play. If you act as a mentor and model during play sessions, your children will better understand how to navigate social interactions.
  • Visual Supports: Visual prompts, visible schedules, or social stories can assist children with autism in understanding the sequence of play activities, social rules, and expected behaviors.  
  • Facilitate Shared Interests: This is a commonsense principle; kids like playing with kids who hold similar interests. You motivate and engage your kiddo in interactive play by determining which peer has an overlapping interest.

ABA Centers of Virginia – Autism and Play 

At ABA Centers of Virginia, we offer top-of-the-line ABA therapy for anyone with autism seeking growth. Whether you’re from Arlington, Washington D.C., or anywhere throughout the region, our board-certified experts individualize our care to ensure every child shores up their weaknesses and capitalizes on their strengths. Play therapy is central in ABA for teaching clients new abilities and safeguarding success, independence, and joy.

Call (855) 957-1892 or reach out on our website for a free consultation

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