Imaginative Play Helps Your Autistic Child

Research shows that imaginative play has a multitude of benefits for all children. (National Library of Medicine; American Academy of Pediatrics). Regarding your child on the autism spectrum, imaginative play is particularly important since your child may need additional support as they grow. Nurturing your child’s ability to use imaginative play will help them with their cognitive, emotional, and social development. All these things contribute to raising a child who is happy, healthy, and well-rounded.

How Does Imaginative Play Help Your Autistic Child?

  • Imitation: Imaginative play involves our ability to imitate others. This means your child will have the opportunity to notice people and learn from other people. Imitation is also super important in the animal kingdom, not just for us humans. For example, lions play rough-and-tumble with their parents and siblings to mimic hunting; it’s like a “dress rehearsal” of the skills they need to be independent. The more time your child spends being interested in people, the more socialization they will likely experience, which will help them with peer play and relationships.
  • Empathy and compassion: We may act out scenes and pretend to be different characters when we play imagination games. Whether we become a train driver, a schoolteacher, a zookeeper, or a hair stylist, we get the opportunity to see things from another person’s perspective for a while. How would this person talk and act? What would they wear? And what would their life be like? This type of play allows your child to step in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. It promotes care and compassion for someone outside of themselves.
  • Teamwork makes the dream work: Imaginative play allows a back-and-forth connection and strengthens reciprocal play. If we have a pretend tea party together, for example, you might take a sip from your cup, and then I take a sip from mine. You pour the tea, and I serve the cake. This type of back-and-forth play is crucial when helping your autistic child because it invites them to be flexible and deepens the interactive component of the play.
  • Language Development: There are many opportunities to model and inspire expressive language during imaginative play. It works for all levels of communication. For example, suppose you are helping your child to say clear words. In that case, you can model one word at a time during imagination games (e.g., when playing a game of feeding animals at the zoo, you can work on the word “eat” as you pretend to feed different animal puppets. Or the word “Ride” while you give your child a horse ride.) You can model sentences for a child who has already mastered single words (e.g., “feed the elephant” or “give me a horse ride.” For a more verbal child, you can work on answering questions or conversations (e.g., “Which animal shall we feed next?”, “Would you like a Horse ride or a giraffe ride next?” etc.)

When can you work on imaginative play with your child?

When your child is already engaging with you: There may be times when your child is stimming (doing a repetitious, self-calming activity) or showing you that they are not open to playing (saying “no” a lot, or insisting on something happening in a particular way.) In The Son-Rise Program®, these are called “Red Light” moments and a time for you to be easy and predictable until they are ready. When your child is paying attention to you, talking, or showing an interest in you (or being less demanding), these are “Green Light” moments (in The Son-Rise Program); these are the times to introduce your imaginative game with your child.

When it comes to your autistic child, it’s essential to demonstrate the imaginative play concepts before asking them to participate. Many of our children are visual learners and may need to see what it looks like before trying it. This calls on you to become a child again by being fun, playful, and relaxed. There are no wrong moves here. When your child engages with you (in a “Green Light”), begin to act out the imaginative scenario and try using their favorite stuffed animals or puppets as part of the play. For example, if you were planning a trip to the beach, announce to your child, “I have a fun idea! We can pretend we are having a day at the beach!” Put on some sunglasses, lay a towel on the floor, and have the stuffed animal hop on the towel to sunbathe.

The success of this game is not whether your child understands the concept immediately or even participates with you, but that you have fun, and your child is attentive to you. Incorporating an image that you can tape to the wall of the scene you are trying to recreate (beach, zoo, or park, for example) will help bring the game to life for your child.

*Note for a pre-verbal or nonspeaking child: Even if your child doesn’t have words yet, they can still express themselves through imaginative play using objects. Invite them to feed the alligator puppet (at the zoo) or jump on a blanket (for a magic carpet ride to the clouds).

There is so much possibility for both you and your child to have fun through your own unique brand of imaginative play. So know that when you incorporate imaginative play into your experiences with your autistic child, you will be helping them grow!

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