Tips on Teaching Pretend Play to Autistic Children

Written by julie vickers
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Tips on Teaching Pretend Play to Autistic Children
Pretend play helps autistic children to develop social skills. (I'm listening image by Yuriy Mazur from

Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or ASD is a developmental condition that affects brain function and causes symptoms such as repetitive behaviours, communication difficulties and impaired social interactions. The symptoms of ASD range from mild to severe, but in young children, they often present as an impaired ability to make friends and to engage in pretend play. Some autistic children also display intense preoccupation with certain objects or the parts of objects. According to the National Autistic Society, it is important to teach pretend play to autistic children because it enables them to develop flexible thinking.

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Culinary Activities

Engage autistic children in cooking activities, such as making chocolate chip cookies. Let them use real tools, but with careful supervision. Have a tea party and enjoy eating the cookies together. Encourage children to remember the sequence of cooking, write out the recipe and illustrate their recipe cards as they wish. If possible, laminate them to keep them clean. Place recipe cards onto a table with play dough and cookie cutters so that children can make pretend cookies with the dough. Alternatively, make salt dough, cut out pretend cookies and bake on low heat until hard. Paint with little brown spots for chocolate chips, and then varnish. Place salt dough cookies, recipe cards and plastic cups and plates in the home corner to encourage pretend play tea parties.

Crazy Creatures

Speech and Language Pathologist Tahirih Bushey at the Autism Games website recommends a pretend play game called "Come Do What I Do" that uses mixed up toy animals. Sit with children to watch the video clip, which demonstrates how to use imagination to "create something new with old parts and then name it." Follow up by letting children cut photos of animals into parts, which they can recombine to create their own "crazy creatures." Glue onto paper to make a picture and help children to create a "crazy" name.

Puppet Play

In her book "Speech and Language Difficulties," Dr. Hannah Mortimer recommends a pretend game called "Ring-a-ling" that requires a large glove puppet and two toy telephones. This game encourages children to engage in social interactions and develop conversational skills. Pretend that the puppet lifts the receiver and dials a number on the telephone. Then say to one of the children, "It's for you!" and invite him to lift the receiver of the other telephone. Use a shy voice for the puppet as it asks simple questions, such as "Hello? Who's there?" Encourage the child to reply by saying his name. The puppet then asks, "Will you be my friend?" Extend the activity by letting children take turns to call the puppet and to ask the puppet questions.

Social Scripts

Autistic children may lack awareness of "social scripts," which are predictable sequences of events, behaviours and dialogues that happen regularly in social situations. Choose a specific situation that autistic children find challenging, such as taking turns. Write a story script that uses children's real names and sequence appropriate behaviour during the game. For example: "Tom sees Lucy playing 'Snakes and Ladders' with Mrs. Adams. Tom says, 'Can I play too?' Mrs. Adams says, 'Yes, right after we have finished this game.' Tom waits his turn and then plays with Mrs. Adams and Lucy. Lucy wins and Tom says, 'Well done, Lucy.'" Follow-up the activity by using puppets to role-play imaginary scenarios and to further develop understanding of social skills and pretend play.

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