Won’t Play or Can’t Play?

Won’t Play or Can’t Play? by Chris Barson

Learning to look at things from the child’s point of view is going help us to get play and communication going in kids on the spectrum.

Play and learning are the same thing. When kids are playing they are using, combining and developing skills such as movement, thinking, attention, seeing, listening and, of course, communicating. Kids with a skill gap in any of these areas are going to have a harder time playing and learning.

There is an increasing recognition that sensory differences are a part of autism. Reality to an autistic person is a confusing, interacting mass of events, places, people, sounds and sights. It’s not uncommon to find a child with autism exploring the world in a very unusual way e.g. smelling the carpet or you! It’s also pretty common to find kids who just can’t stand the touch or sound of something. Refusing to join in messy play or covering their ears with their hands might be clues. Tuning into possible sensory differences is the key to presenting accessible play opportunities. For kids with unusual sensory systems get them sniffing things, stretching stuff – feeling, swinging, spinning things that are fun to feel, swing or spin. Now you’re rocking! Oh yeah, don’t forget to try rocking. It’s fun.

Youngsters with autism like a system. Having autism means you have an enhanced need for order, pattern and predictability. If your play opportunities are too chaotic or spontaneous it might be just too much. Break play down into bite size pieces with clear beginnings, middles and ends. Contain whole play “systems” in a shoe box maybe. Let the child show you which shoebox they are ready for today. Take turns on who gets to select. Let’s learn about waiting and choosing while we do it Yey!!!


We should anticipate motor problems.These will often have the same profile as dyspraxia – problems planning smooth, co-ordinated movements. This leads to clumsiness and lack of co-ordination. Try to use easy to handle shapes and objects. Create no-fail play using templates for painting or jigs to help the child see what goes where.

If you have the kind of attention system that just has to process everything. If your mind likes to hoover up every available bit of data. Imagine what the typical play environment, preschool or nursery setting does to your brain! Try just having one toy/play opportunity at a time in front of the child. Find a way to screen out most of the stimuli that is not part of the game. Frames are a great way of focussing attention. Put a hoop, line of wool or string round what you want the child to focus on and play with.
Watch your speed. Allow plenty of ‘child time’ for processing and getting ready to make her next move. During this time what should you do? Keep quiet! Focus your attention away from the child and the play object/area. Let the child lead.

Sometimes kids with autism just don’t get the “Let’s Play” signals. Our face and voice might not be enough to “give the game away”. Try developing a signposting system for what game or toy is coming next. Announce the arrival of the elephant with the water squirter trunk by putting on a sou-wester.

Most objects seem to tell us what to do with them e.g.the shape of a handle on a teapot. We look at it and instinctively know that this is the bit to get your hand round. Now, really little kids often pick it up by the spout the first time but they quickly learn from us. They don’t keep doing it. We all had to learn the right end of things but we just forgot that we learnt it. This kind of thing is less obvious to a child on the spectrum and it might take longer to learn and be harder to retain. They often need to think about stuff that is intuitive to everyone else.

A child with autism may have a very solitary or independent play style. Be careful about paired or group play. Playing in parallel might be the way to start to get the little person used to other little people. Never assume that something will be a whole lot more fun if we all do it. Some things are precious and personal.

Act oddly. Capture attention by laughing at a toy, pointing at it, waking away from it and then letting curiosity ‘get the better of you’. This will come as a shock to them. Big folk acting funny? Whatever that thing is it must sure be interesting!

As with all things – practice and patience will pay off! Have fun.

Hear more from Chris and others about play, learning and Autism at ‘The Big Autism Play Day!’ 4 March 2016 in Manchester and 18 March 2016 in London.

Posted in Autism