Play provides some of a child’s first opportunities to rehearse social interactions, generate novel ideas, toy with symbolism and develop narratives — skills that serve us later in life, particularly in our highly social world. Indeed, children who engage in more complex play early in development show greater social competence at later ages. Add the opportunity to invite another person to play, or to follow another’s lead, and the foundation for working with others is set.
For children with autism, however, these opportunities do not present themselves so easily. Yet play is still an important developmental tool for these children. For clinicians, it represents a key arena for delivering therapies that could improve a child’s social skills, language and certain cognitive capacities.
Many children with autism show unusual features in their play starting early in life. These include reduced creativity and imagination, such as recreating scenarios from a television show verbatim. The play of children with autism also tends to have a persistent sensorimotor or ritualistic quality. For example, a child might repetitively arrange toys to mimic some observed play activity.
These play characteristics were part of the diagnostic criteria for autism for many years, but are not listed in the newest edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM). Still, the way children with autism play can provide clues to what skills they lack and highlight areas that warrant intervention.