Children have been learning through play for millions of years. In my opinion most children learn best through play, including children with autism.
Play is extremely important to children with autism, even though they typically have a difficult time understanding the concept of play. The reason is because play is an abstract concept and children with autism are generally more concrete thinkers. In addition, play involves an intense level of communication and eye contact, something children on the spectrum typically have a hard time maintaining.
At the beginning of the school year 2010- 2011, my assignment was teaching a classroom of children with multiple disabilities. There were seven children and they were all of Kindergarten age. Three met the diagnostic criteria for autism. Two of the seven were non-verbal. Three were only partially verbal. The remaining two were verbal but with autism-like verbal skills which included an inability to understand abstract questions or answer "W" questions or who, what, when, where and why.
Reason Number One: Play is important to children with autism because it teaches reciprocity.
Children with autism have a hard time understanding the give and take action of reciprocity, as well as the eye contact which usually goes along with the reciprocity. They tend to play by themselves as a way to isolate themselves, often engaging in self-soothing behavior. This year I witnessed a six-year-old with autism experience her first experience with initiating play be making the simple gesture of "Come chase me." To see her laughter as she understood the concept of initiating play was remarkable.
Reason Number Two: Play is important to children with autism improves communication skills.
Whether it be verbal or non-verbal communication, play naturally increases communication skills because children have to communicate in order to get what they want. Even if the activity is independent, as in each child having their own play doh and tools, or their own sensory bin, they naturally want to talk with each other about what they are doing.
In the case of the child above, we found she does better with silent forms of communication rather than speech. Instead of saying "Throw me the ball," I found it better to simply hold out my hands and wait for her to throw it. It took me time to learn this and also to learn to give the appropriate amount of wait time.
Reason Number Three: Play is important to children with autism improves the ability to think abstractly.
Children with autism tend to be concrete thinkers making imagination difficult. What comes naturally to some children, such as playing with baby dolls or in the housekeeping area, has to be taught explicitly to children with autism.
Reason Number Four: Play is important to children with autism promotes friendships.
Play promotes friendships by creating bonding and communication experiences between children. As children play together, they develop a fondness for each other through laughter and sharing.
Reason Number Five: Play is important to children with autism promotes bonding between caregiver/teacher and child.
Getting down on the floor to play, dancing and singing, running around in the gym, chasing children around on the playground equipment - all of these things promote bonding between the teacher/caregiver perhaps more than anything else.
The joy of seeing a child learn to play who didn't know how to play before is perhaps even more rewarding than teaching a child academic skills. The reason is because play will last a lifetime and provide continuous pleasure for a person with autism or developmental disability.
Reason Number Six: Play is fun!!
Play is important to children with autism because it's fun and it promotes physical exercise and mental well-being. We all need to take time out to play every day.