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Monday 2 November 2015

Teaching Functional Play to Students with Autism - Part Two

Hi Everyone!  It's my turn to post in the We Teach SPED group, and since I was't able to do my last post due to the election, I thought I would write it today!  Today's post in the second in my series on teaching functional play skills to students with Autism.  In my last post, I spoke about strategies for increasing engagement and social play.  Today, I am going to focus on playing with toys.

Cause and Effect Toys

Some of students who are very early learners need to be taught how play and activate cause and effect toys.  I like to use them with these students because they initially rely on an adult to activate them, thus increasing attention and engagement with the adult.  When a student does not yet know how to play with them independently and are reliant upon an adult to activate them, you can work on requesting with the student.  I also like to use them because they appeal to the repetitiveness that students with autism need and enjoy.  Once the student learns how to manipulate and activate these types of toys, they are able to engage in independent play, at the earliest developmental stage.

Using Closed-Ended Toys

When I start to teach a young student how to play with toys, I next begin with toys that have a clear beginning and end.  Toys such as stacking rings, texting cups, shape sorters and inset puzzles.  Some of these toys appeal to students with autism because they can line the items up in a vertical manner.  Others appeal to them because they are simple and quick to complete and play to their strengths of visual perception.  I like these toys because they are the building blocks of skills like matching, size concepts and ordering.  I also like using them because they are easy for the student to learn how to complete them and they quickly become the student's first toys that they play with functionally and independently.  Once a student masters these toys, they will choose to play with them during free time because they have been paired with reinforcement and the student knows how to play with them.  Students with autism like to repeat activities that they are successful with and that bring them joy.

Play Through Imitation

The step in teaching students with autism to play with toys is to teach them through imitation.  This skill is commonly referred to as Gross Motor Imitation with Objects in ABA terms.  This early skill is mostly aimed at increasing attention to instructors and imitating or copying models, but I also like to use it to teach students how to play with toys.  Students with autism don't know how to play with toys functionally.  They will often line them up, spin them or watch parts of them move, such as wheels on cars or trains.  By teaching play through imitation, you are showing the student different ways of manipulating or interacting with the toys.  When using this method, I like to choose a set of toys that are related, rather than a random selection.  So, I will begin teaching with a set of tools, a train set or cars, etc.  When you choose a set of tools, rather than random ones for GMI targets, you can teach the student to play with the same toy in a variety of ways.  For example, I have one student who loves the movie "Cars".  I was able to find a bunch of these toys at the Dollar Tree and then gathered a couple of other items like a tunnel and garage.  His teaching targets for these toys include pretending to drive the cars, crashing the cars, driving them off of the table, driving through the tunnel, towing a car, etc. Teaching a variety of play actions with the same set of toys helps to expand creative play and reduce repetitive actions.

Structuring Toys

After a student has demonstrated that s/he can imitate several different play actions, I will teach them to play with toys that have been structured.  By structured, I mean setting up toys so that students have some instructions as to how to play with them, or boundaries that assist them in playing functionally.  Some ways to structure toys include adhering them to a tray to create boundaries, or adding visual pathways.  Sometimes, students need to be taught how to play with these toys as well, but usually it is just a one time demonstration.  These play activities are short in duration and are great for early learners.

Play or Activity Schedules

Once a student has mastered several closed ended play activities or toys, we begin to teach them to build and follow a play schedule.  These schedules are particularly helpful for students with autism as it allows them to plan out their play activities and helps to deter them from engaging in self-stimulatory behaviour during free time.  These schedules are also helpful to parents at home, as they allow them a chunk of time to do make dinner or wash dishes, while knowing that their child is engaged in functional play activities.  Once a student has mastered using a schedule at school, I will coach the parents how on to set it up at home.  Basically, a play schedule is a series of play activities that the student chooses to engage in during free or exploration time.  All of the play activities or toys that the student chooses to play with have been previously taught to the student.  The student is taught to choose the activities to build their schedule and then how to follow the schedule, including locating the toys and putting them away before moving onto the next activity.  This video demonstrates a student using a play schedule in my classroom.

Building From A  Model

The next step in teaching functional play with toys involves teaching students to build scenes, or structures from a picture model.  The models can be presented in photos, drawings or clipart and can use legos, blocks, felt pieces or Mr. Potato Head.  Basically, the student is taught to replicate what they see in the picture, using the materials provided.  Teaching students with autism to play using this strategy is not only important for the development of their play skills, but also for teaching them to follow pictorial instructions, a skill they will use for the rest of their lives in a variety of situations, such as assembling furniture, and following emergency procedures, such as on airplanes.  I use this strategy as an introduction to playing with building type toys with my students, as some students with autism lack the imagination and creativity to construct their own structures or scenes when playing with these types of toys.  I also use this as a precursor to teaching students to use play scripts.

Play Scripts

Once a student has a strong base of imitation and copying skills and independent closed ended play activities in their repertoire, I begin teaching them how to follow play scripts.  In their most basic form, play scripts involve copying a series of actions as depicted in photos.  The students look at the photos and copy what they see with the toys provided.  These scripts provide students with autism a sequence of play actions they can engage in that encourage pretend play.  Most students with autism lack the imagination and spontaneity that comes naturally to most children when playing, as well as the language and social skills that are an integral part to children's pretend play.  Teaching students with autism to use play scripts allows them to engage in pretend play skills that can be expanded upon and easily incorporate peers into their play.  This video shows one of my students engaging in play using a play script.  Just a note, before introducing a play script for this toy, he would engage in self stimulatory and repetitive behaviours with it, such as pushing the swing and spinning the tic tac toe pieces.  Also, this is one of the first scripts we used with him.  Since then, he has mastered several more, which involve more creative play sequences.  You can download this play script here.

Video Models

Video models have been effectively used in ABA teaching for years for teaching a variety of skills.  I like to use them in my classroom to teach students how to engage in pretend play using sounds and language to enhance their play and for teaching them to play with peers.  Essentially, video models depicts a scene of play, such as playing doctor, house or grocery shopping that the student watches and then imitates with toys and/or peers.  What I like about using video models is that it adds the feature of language to the play and it also makes the student rely on their memory to re-enact what they watched.  And I have found that no matter how good a student's memory is, they ultimately alter the script from what they have seen and add their own imaginative element to their play.  I have found that using video modelling and play scripts ultimately leads to the expansion of pretend play with toys and eventually with peers.

Note Bene*

As a final note, I should add that as with all prompting used in teaching students with autism, it is important to fade the use of the visuals, scripts and video models that are used when initially teaching play skills to students with autism. 

Additional Resources

I recently purchased two books from The Hanen Centre that are easy to read and full of great tips and strategies to encourage, expand and teach play skills.  They are aimed at parents, but I found them very helpful for my EAs and students on placement.  They are the first two books in a new series called "Make Play ROCK" and are aimed at children with autism and other social communication difficulties.  The ROCK stands for: Repeat, Offer Opportunities, Cue and Keep it Going.  This term is referenced throughout the books and offers plans for play, as well as simple assessment tools so staff can evaluate their current way of playing.  The first book focuses on people play and the second book is all about playing with toys.  The third book in the series, which I just checked and is now available for order is about pretend play and the fourth book, which is not yet available focuses on playing with peers.  These books are great resources and are fairly inexpensive.  You can order them through the Hanen Centre website.

Thanks so much for stopping by!  I would love to hear about your tips and strategies for teaching students with autism to play.  Leave me a comment below or send me an email!

Until next time,


  1. Hi Nicole,

    I am completing a practicum focusing on functional play in children with autism. I love your above post! If you don't mind, I have a few questions for you. Would you mind if I emailed you?...I tried opening your email tab at the top, but for some reason I was unable to do so. THanks- Marie

  2. This is a post with temperature and affection, the author's post makes us pay attention to children with autism

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  4. Hi,

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