Playing stimulates the child’s development intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally while helping them to develop a degree of imagination.
As a child develops, the use of materials changes from functional to constructive, then onto dramatic, (like dramatic play dress ups etc.) and then they play games with rules.
Functional play is when the child uses materials in a simple, repetitive and explorative way.
Constructive play occurs when the child uses his materials to reach a specific goal (for example using legos to build something).
Autistic children often have difficulties achieving and understanding dramatic play, which involves pretending, but once they learn it, they enjoy playing it.
Younger children most often play in solitary while older children may play alone only briefly to develop their own ideas.
Often times, children parallel play, which means they are playing side by side, but not playing interactively with each other.
Associative play allows children to share materials amongst themselves.
Cooperative play is when children plan, assign, and play together.
Low-functioning autistic children play in solitary most of the time. They might ask for help from an adult to accomplish their task, but they do not have the desire to socially interact with them otherwise. They usually do not imitate others, and if they do, it occurs very seldom. As well, they don’t often engage in functional or constructive play.
These children love patterns of movement, therefore they most likely spend longer period of time playing with dirt or water, or anything that might spin. Although it might be a challenge for a caretaker to bring these children out of their solitary play (their “stimming”), it is possible and very encouraged to do so by presenting them with a mix of repeated play experiences.
I would here like to share my personal experience about this subject. Amin loves water, dirt and all objects that can be made to flow or spin. I got him a sand box and I hid all basic shapes in the sand. I made him use the scoop to look for these shapes. He was still playing with the sand in a self-stimulatory manner, which he enjoyed very much, but at the same time he learned the use of a shovel, and learned to find and identify all basic shapes.
Here are some activity suggestions for non-verbal autistic children:
Always stay close to the child to assure that they are focusing on their tasks.
Use toys that usually interest babies or toddlers, or toys that make noise. Use white glue to outline simple shapes, and let it dry, so the child can learn to color within lines, since the glue will give raised borders.
When teaching to do wooden inlay puzzles, tape all pieces in except one, and gradually leave more out as the child becomes more and more proficient at this task. To teach them how to cut with scissors, you may give a child a 1″ wide construction paper strip to cut through.
Draw two dark parallel lines maybe 2″ apart on a paper as a means of boundaries for teaching children fine motor skills, like holding and using a pencil. Make them trace straight, wavy or zig-zag lines. Use two adults (one behind and one in front) to teach them how to throw and catch a ball. These are just few ideas to teach a non-verbal autistic child how to engage in, and more importantly, to enjoy cooperative and functional play.