Play is critical to children's development in all domains (social-emotional, communication, physical, adaptive, cognitive). Consequently, introducing and designing appropriate play opportunities for all children, but especially for children with ASD, is a primary concern for educators, clinicians, and parents. Educators and parents of children with ASD often struggle to identify and design appropriate play activities to promote learning. Thus, it is challenging yet critical to find meaningful play activities and experiences to accommodate children’s specific interests and ability levels.
What type of play do children with ASD prefer?
A study published in the North American Journal of Medicine and Science investigated the types of play most often preferred by children with ASD in a controlled but authentic setting, where direct observation and data collection would be possible. This research study was novel in the area of studying the free play choices of children with ASD because it was conducted in a naturalistic setting (public museum) without adult prompting, or contrived situations. The children were allowed to freely select from among 20 play activities, and did not recognize they were being observed, so responses and behaviors were authentic.
Data collected over six months resulted in a sample size of 1,506 observations for children with ASD and 985 without ASD. Informal observation established an ASD- participant age range of 3-18, with the most common age range being 5-10 years old. Data were combined for each of 20 different play stations. The five play exhibits most significantly preferred by children with ASD were 1) Climbing Stairs, 2) the Netherlands Windmill, 3) Vietnam rice table, 4) Loop the Loop, and 5) Make it Roller-Ball. Each exhibit preferred by children with ASD offered strong sensory input and feedback to the participant, while many featured repetitive movement or motion (Make it Roller-Ball), and cause/effect attributes, such as propelled balls (Loop the Loop), and spinning objects (Netherlands Windmill).
The most popular (strongly preferred) activity among children with ASD was the exhibit "Climbing Stairs." Children who climbed a short staircase could then drop a ball and watch it descend. Another popular activity involved a windmill. Children can push its arms, causing it to spin. A table filled with rice completed the top three most preferred exhibits among children with ASD. In contrast, the five least popular exhibits for children with ASD were pretend play activities, and play activities which focused on arts/crafts. This confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that children would prefer play activities with a strong sensory component and are far less likely to engage in activities involving pretend play.
"Children with ADS sometimes tend to crave motion, and if they can't be moving, they like to look at moving objects," said researcher Kathy Ralabate Doody, noting that motion engages the vestibular, proprioceptive, and visual senses. "So just watching the windmill engaged them. When the windmill turned in response to their push, it also provided cause-and-effect play. And the repetition of the spinning movement provided a third level of satisfaction." Climbing the stairs also satisfied multiple senses. Playing with rice provided both tactile and visual stimulation as children felt and watched the rice pour through their fingers.
Identifying the types of play preferred by children with ASD has practical and important implications for educators, clinicians, and parents. For example, the information from this study could also be utilized in the formation of inclusive programs and services to encourage social interaction between children with ASD and their typical peers. Educators and clinicians can also utilize this information in designing treatment sessions and intervention strategies for children with ASD. Preferred activities and manipulatives are frequently used as tangible and concrete positive reinforcement in the teaching of children with ASD. Further, parents could make use of this information in selecting toys and family activities to appeal to the interests and abilities of a child with ASD. The ability to engage in preferred play promotes independence for the child with ASD, thereby providing a parent or caregiver an opportunity to prepare dinner, attend to another child, or just take a break for a few moments. Prior research indicates the need for leisure activities to support families living with a child on the spectrum.
Lastly, additional research is needed before generalizing the results of this study to all children with ASD. Possible directions for future research include following individual children with ASD, and measuring the time spent by an individual child at each play activity. The researchers note that they are currently conducting a secondary study, comparing the play preferences of children with ASD to children with typical development in the same naturalistic environment.
Kathy Ralabate Doody, Jana Mertz. Preferred Play Activities of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Naturalistic Settings. North American Journal of Medicine and Science, 2013 DOI: 10.7156/najms.2013.0603128
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also editor of a text in the American Psychological Association (APA) School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools, and author of the book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools, (2nd Edition).