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“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning”– Mr. Rogers

Following the release of our play series last month at our own online resources platform, Autism At Home, we have prepared a series of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) in hopes of guiding you through supporting your children’s play times at home. 

Developmental Milestones of Play

1. I have never seen my child being interested in any kind of toys before and do not wish to continue spending money and testing his interest. Are there any alternatives to this?

One of the benefits of toy play is for the child to be able to keep themselves occupied while playing appropriately. Some children may not have a natural interest in toys and this can be due to not fully understanding how to play with the toy. However, this can be encouraged through rewarding the child for giving it a try. For example, each time your child shows the effort of playing with the toy car we were enticing him/her to play with, we will reward him/her with his favourite play/food or anything that is motivating to him/her. This is to pair a positive association with the toy play itself.  Separately, it is also important to observe your child’s interests and look for toys with features that your child is likely to be attracted to. If your child likes throwing, bowling or paper airplanes may be a good starting point; if your child is amused by light and sound, musical toys or spinning tops that emit light and sounds may be worth a try. For more information on how to play with your child and build on your child’s interest in playing, check out our free online resource on “Making Learning Fun”!

We understand children’s toys can be quite a hefty sum. There are alternatives such as searching on Pinterest for ideas and hacks using items that can be easily found at home and/or making your own toys for the children. In Malaysia, there are also more affordable options from Mr DIY (just word of caution about the toxicity levels of the materials!). Additionally, we would suggest having a toy library or toy rotations with family, friends or neighbours. This way, it helps to save on expenses while at the same time the children get a variety of toys to play with.

2. My child is 5 years old and still prefers to play alone. Is this an indicator of autism? Should I be concerned?

Based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) on Developmental Milestones, children would start to “rather play with other children” than on their own by the age of 4 and “want to please friends” and “be like friends” by the age of 5. (Click here for a free copy of the CDC Milestone Moments Booklet).

However, when a child prefers to play alone, it does not necessarily mean there is a problem. It depends on various factors related to the child and the situation they are in. If the child is continuously reluctant and shows negative behaviours towards the idea of playing with others, then it is important to find out why. It could be due to shyness, lack of social skills or other more serious reasons that need to be addressed immediately.

While playing alone has its own benefits which is fundamental for the growth and learning for the child, playing with others teaches social skills and values such as empathy, cooperation, negotiation and teamwork. This can be gradually encouraged starting with people that the child is generally more drawn towards and following the developmental stages of play i.e. parallel play, associative play, cooperative play.

Interactive Play

1. My child is not into tickling and touch, mostly related to his senses and sensitivity, how should I go about this?

There are plenty of other ways you can play interactively with your child without having too much physical contact! You can try using a blanket (get your child to sit and hold onto it while you pull the blanket across the room, or roll your child into the blanket like a burrito!). For more interactive play ideas, you can check it out here: Interactive Play

2. As I try interactive play, my child seems to be afraid when I act in a dramatic way. He started to avoid me and would even cry if I continued trying. What should I do?

Your child may not be used to the switch in your disposition if this is the first time you acted in a dramatic way. Do try to tone down and start with something familiar and observe how your child reacts. Try and catch what would interest them best; be it loud and dramatic sound or perhaps a more quiet play like tickling them using soft toys. Follow their lead until you manage to find what they really enjoy. Check out our free online resource on “How to be Fun” for your child!

3. When I try interactive play with both of my children, I find it challenging to get them to play together. The interactive plays that older sibling enjoys are too advanced, while she is disinterested with the interactive plays her younger sibling enjoys. What can I do to balance both of their interests and get them to enjoy interactive play together?

It would be ideal to find a play that can incorporate both your children’s interests. Depending on the age gap between your children, developmentally it may be age appropriate for the older sibling to have moved on and developed different interests, however there are important skills that the older sibling could learn such as tolerating other people’s choices and other people’s perspective. It would be worth speaking to the older sibling and rewarding the older sibling separately for tolerating and playing nicely together with the younger sibling.

Separately, you can try to have your children get used to playing with each other. Breaking it down, you can have them playing side-by-side with each other, but with their own toys/games. Then, gradually move on to activities that require them to share certain items (e.g. paint brush/tools) and finally, have them play cooperatively (treasure hunt, building a puzzle together or passing the ball to each other). You can insert the interactive elements (e.g. singing together, chasing each other) when they are more comfortable to play with each other, and always remember to praise and reward them when they are playing nicely together, and especially tolerating playing with each other!

Toy Play

1. My child is able to play with toys appropriately, but treats it as a chore and would only do it when we are supervising closely. When he is alone, he would succumb to stimming or playing with toys inappropriately. What can I do to make appropriate toy play enjoyable for him?

It is recommended to perform a motivation assessment to identify what your child prefers and is motivated for. If the goal is for the child to be able to play independently and keep himself occupied with appropriate play, providing a play that the child is familiar and motivated for would set him up for success.

It is also important to praise and reinforce your child whenever he is playing appropriately, in order to build a positive association towards appropriate toy play. This pairing of an unpreferred play with a preferred activity will help to strengthen motivation.

2. My child is only interested in toys that are for kids way younger than him. Is this an indicator of developmental delays?

A child’s interest is not a direct representation of his/her capabilities, hence a child’s interest in toys is not a good indicator of his/her corresponding level of development. It is important to note that the age appropriateness of the activity can impact socialisation when in a peer or group setting. It is however advisable to consult a doctor or specialist should you have concerns regarding your child’s development.

3. I am reluctant to expose my child to toy play as he only plays toys in the same inappropriate manner i.e. arranging each piece or component of the toy into a line. He gets into a big meltdown when his play is interrupted. What should I do?

It is recommended to have a separate set of the same toy and expose your child to other fun ways of playing with the toy by playing next to him. Do note that we are not forcing him to do the same, but helping him see that there are other ways of playing with the toy that hopefully picks his curiosity and interest to want to try.

When managing rigidities and controlling behaviours, a gradual and systematic approach to challenge the behaviour is recommended. You can introduce toys that have an established structure (e.g. train tracks) before moving on to toys that have a loose structure (e.g. lego/building blocks). Guide your child closely in playing appropriately, and always praise and reward your child when he is following the steps, playing appropriately and even attempting to try new ways of playing!

Sensory Play

My child is not interested in sensory play. It could relate back to his sensitivity and inability to tolerate certain textures, as he couldn’t stand getting dirty or wet, and would cry if we did not clean up or change his clothes right away. Are there any ways to encourage him to keep trying, even when it is uncomfortable?

To keep your child successful and play times enjoyable, it is recommended to start off with materials that your child is comfortable with. On managing your child’s tolerance issue, it is advisable to approach it in a systematic manner, by gradually varying the degree of exposure and time. Remember, it is important to reinforce and praise your child for being brave in trying and tolerating new things that  are potentially uncomfortable.

2. My child likes to put everything into his mouth, and sensory play often ends up to be an eating feast for him. Understand that sensory play is open ended, and it is hard to draw the line on what is appropriate or inappropriate. How should I break down sensory play so that my child can learn to play appropriately (e.g. scooping and pouring pasta instead of just eating)?

Sensory play is a great opportunity for sensory exploration, hence it is typical for children to explore by putting sensory play materials into their mouths. Do ensure that materials are edible, and always have sensory play under close supervision. If you would like to decrease the likelihood of your child eating all of the materials, consider having sensory play after mealtimes.

As it is part of sensory exploration, sensory play is best done in a free form with little structure. However, if you would like to expose your child to different ways of playing, you can demonstrate it to your child first, then get them to try it out.

Independent Play

1. I want to expand my child’s ability in occupying his time but as I add more activity he seems to be upset and less successful. How should I address this?

Other than making sure that your child is fluent and familiar with each of the activities, it is also important to make sure that the progression is kept at a pace that your child is successful at in terms of the time he has to keep himself occupied rather than the number of activities he needs to do. Gradually increase the duration in smaller intervals and always reinforce your child when he is behaving expectedly.

2. My child enjoys company and doesn’t like to be left alone. It is hard for me to ignore when he calls out to me and would cry if he is ignored. I do not want to discourage his initiation as he was communicating to me but the goal is for him to play alone. How do I manage this?

Communication would play an important role here. Before starting with independent play it is important for the child to understand expectations and have predictability. Break down the skill by starting with a shorter distance between you and your child as well as the time he is left to be on his own. Reward them for each time they are able to play independently and you can move on slowly in increasing distance and time of play.

3. My child engages in stimming behaviours and plays inappropriately if we are not close to guide him. Would independent play encourage stimming behaviours  and discourage children with autism from playing with others? How should I balance this?

The aim of independent play varies accordingly but it is mainly to develop children’s ability to occupy themselves appropriately and allow parents some time without having to constantly supervise their children. In terms of stimming behaviors, ways to help with this is to use play activities that have a clear end goal. Example for this is a puzzle, where there is a clear cut of what finishing the play would look like.

Always reward and praise your child when they are playing and behaving appropriately. Do keep in mind the child’s capability in playing certain toys, as in order to play independently, they need to first learn the skill to play with toys appropriately.

Imaginative Play

1. My child has the prerequisite skills for imaginative play but struggles in imagining and doesn’t seem to understand when we try to do imaginative play. How should I break this down so my child is able to engage creatively, rather than treating it like a task?

Imaginative play comes from the knowledge and information that children already know. As a start, we can expose them to multiple things that are happening in their surroundings such as showing a realistic scene or story of going to the barber, having a meal at a restaurant and even riding a train. Consistent with the effort to create positive association, try to use what interests them best and start from there. We can lead this part so children can learn while observing, with no demand on them to come up with any scripts.

2. My child has the vocabulary and is able to talk in therapy but less likely so with us, the family. Thus, engaging in imaginative play is hard for us. I know he engages somehow with teachers, but rarely engages with us at home. What should I do?

This is not something rare, rest assured. The structure in a session makes it more conducive for kids to communicate as there are set expectations in sessions. In order for the child to be able to participate in Imaginative Play with family , we shall first focus on generalising the expressive skills with family. Once the child is able to communicate with family, the possibility for engagement would be limitless.

Games and Sports

1. I would like to expose my child to play with others, but due to his rigidities he struggles in tolerating other kids when they don’t play according to his expectations. How should I manage this?

Addressing the rigidity issue, changes should come gradually to keep children successful in coping. Start off by explaining expectations of playing with others and the consequences of their actions. Perhaps expose them to one friend or sibling first before letting them play in a bigger group. The process of exposure to playing with others should also be done gradually. Having them playing side-by-side with each other with no need to share the toys and move on to activities that require them to share certain items (e.g. paint brush/tools). Once they are able to do so, have them try to play cooperatively (treasure hunt, building a puzzle together or passing the ball to each other).

Remember to reinforce and celebrate every time they are coping well with these changes!

2. My child struggles in taking turns and coping when he loses. We would like him to learn to play cooperatively, but it often ends with a meltdown when things do not go his way. What should we do?

Losing is not easy to handle, even for us adults. Acknowledge that the child’s feeling is valid, yet there are better ways to deal with it. Ideally, we would want the child to learn social skills and be able to have fun with their friends when they go out and play. We can start with explaining how winning and losing works, and how to cope with it, through social stories, video models and even roleplay. Next, practise! Take some time with your family and have a game time together. Use the chance to model coping methods and practise it with your child. Once they are better at tolerating losing, you can let them experience it in the real world, with friends.

3. My child tends to be a bit rough when it comes to physical games/sports, and though he understands the rules of games, his impulsiveness often gets him into trouble. How should I guide him to be more aware and careful when he is playing with other kids?

With kids that have more awareness and the skill to understand others’ perspectives, it would be helpful to explain to them the consequences of their actions. For kids that struggle in understanding others, it would be better to set clear expectations on playing with others. These can be done through social stories and video models, following with roleplay, which involves acting out scenarios. Finally, when your child is better in managing his impulse, generalize this skill by exposing him to the real situation-playing with others. Constantly reflecting and reinforcing when your child is playing nicely are also crucial to encourage the expected behaviours.

We hope this helps answer some of your questions related to play! If you have any further questions, feel free to email us at enquiries@autismmalaysia.com or contact us at +603-2094 0421 or +6013-319 0301.

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