Autistic Children Choosing How to Play

Autistic children chose games with sensory feedback and repetition

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

For children, playtime is learning time. For children with autism, the type of play may be very important. A new study suggests that autistic children may choose certain kinds of activities and avoid others.

A team of researchers recently studied children with and without autism who played without adult guidance in a children's museum with many exhibits.

They found that autistic children chose activities involving their senses, repetition and cause and effect more than children without autism. Autistic children tended to avoid playing pretend and doing arts and crafts.

The researchers wrote that this study could help educators and parents choose better playtime activities to develop the interests and abilities of children with autism.

"If your child is autistic, suggest games with sensory feedback and repetition."

The study, led by Kathy Ralabate Doody, PhD, of SUNY Buffalo, and Jana Mertz, MBA, of the Women's and Children's Hospital of Buffalo, was conducted to find the best play activities for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Autism spectrum disorders are conditions that impact the patient's social interactions and ability to communicate.

In March of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that about one in every 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder, and most of those children are male.

For children, playtime is an essential part of social development and learning, and children with autism may have different needs and desires for their play activities.

Children with autism spectrum disorders can have difficulty staying on task and may be disinterested in certain activities. Large crowds, overstimulation and long waiting periods can also lead to frustration for an autistic child.

As a result, the researchers wanted to see what activities are the most engaging for children with autism.

The researchers created a play opportunity in a children's museum called "Au-some Evenings" to observe free-play among autistic children in a community setting. The children were allowed to play in the 20 exhibits of the museum.

Adults did not tell the children what to do or how to play. The children were not told that they were being observed so the researchers could watch their most authentic behaviors.

Invitations for "Au-some Evenings" were extended to families through schools and email newsletters. The average participant was between 5 and 10 years old. Children without autism were invited as well, but they had a different color name tag so that the researchers could distinguish between them.

Teachers were recruited to observe the children and record the number of participants with autism at each exhibit during 30 five-minute intervals.

Each type of exhibit was categorized as a different type of play: sensory feedback, cause/effect, pretend/dramatic, arts/crafts or movement/motion.

The play opportunities were held periodically for six months, with an average of about 100 people per month. A total of 1,506 observations of children with autism were recorded.

The researchers found that 11 of the 20 exhibits showed a significant difference between the children with autism playing there and the children without autism.

Each of the top five exhibits that the autistic children preferred had more involved sensory feedback and either cause and effect or repetitive motions. For example, autistic children spent more time at games with spinning objects or propelled balls on an obstacle course.

The least popular exhibits among children with autism were pretend play and arts and crafts stations.

The researchers suggested that children with autism disliked pretend play because autistic children often have difficulty with "putting themselves in another person's shoes," or predicting how another person would think or act in a situation.

According to the researchers, this study could be used to create better classes, services and programs to promote learning and social interaction with children who have autism.

"The investigators’ use of a natural setting with multiple types of activities to assess play preferences of children with autism spectrum disorder is novel and provided confirmatory evidence that such children compared to controls prefer activities with strong sensory components and avoided those requiring pretend play," noted Glen Elliott, PhD, MD, a Clinical Professor (Affiliated) at the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

"Categorization of preferred activities is an important step towards examining these broader issues," Dr. Elliott said.

This study was published in the North American Journal of Medicine and Science (NAJMS) on July 25.

The "Au-some Evenings" were financially sponsored by a local law firm. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
August 30, 2013
Last Updated:
August 31, 2013