Autism and Play: Part I

Through play, children with autism can hone thinking skills

In May 2016, Raphael Bernier, PhD, wrote an article in Spectrum News about play and autism.  Below summarizes the article, and you can find the full version by clicking this link!

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. For children with autism, however, these opportunities do not present themselves so easily. Yet play is still an important developmental tool for these children.

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.  In assessing children with autism, clinicians look at several different types of play, including symbolic play and functional play. Children with autism are often typical in their functional and sensorimotor play at age 3, but they show poorer pretend play skills than their typical peers do.

Cognitive abilities, language skills and executive functions such as self-control and mental flexibility all influence the development of play and its application to clinical settings. Autism affects all these domains.  Many children with autism are missing out on the opportunities and benefits of pretend play.

The relationship between executive function, language and pretend play provides new avenues for treatment. Developing therapies to improve executive function, for example, can help children with autism benefit from pretend play, which creates natural learning opportunities for a prepared mind.  Pretend play itself can be considered a form of treatment — one that costs nothing, requires no professional training and can happen anywhere.

We will continue to explore Autism and Play, so stay tuned for more posts on this fun, informative topic! ~The Bernier Lab