3 Helpful Tips to Make You Confident About Teaching Play Skills for Autism

3 Helpful Tips to Make You Confident About Teaching Play Skills for Autism

Do you feel confident teaching play skills? Have you ever been asked for recommendations from parents about toys that are appropriate for their children to play with?  For more typical students, this isn’t usually difficult. But what do you say for your students on the spectrum who don’t have typical play skills?

autism, car shoebox play, speech therapy

Take your student who works happily to get some playtime with small cars, but then when he gets the cars he doesn’t actually play.

All he does is line the cars up. Sometimes the cars are in size order, sometimes they are grouped by color, and sometimes there is no apparent pattern. Is there something we should do? And what in the world do we recommend when his parents ask us?

Your student shows that he is able to categorize by features, but he doesn’t understand object functions, a skill needed for representational play.  How do we change this?

autism, car shoebox play, speech therapy

I love using shoeboxes to develop play skills for 3 reasons.

1. They make the play steps and ‘all done’ visually obvious.

2. They stabilize the toys to help with physical manipulation problems.

3. It makes one complete activity that the child can learn to do independently.

How to Design Your Own Shoebox Play Tasks

It is important to design the play shoebox so your student sees what to do and when it will be done from the visual set up.

Teach how to use 2 or more objects together in play, since that is where make-believe play begins.

Begin with toys your student shows interest in, whether by looking at them, picking them up, or otherwise interacting with the toys.

Using your student’s most favorite toy could lead to resistance when you start changing a learned, loving interaction.

Remember that when you are teaching a new skill, this is work!

So, your student will work on learning how to play but will get to line the cars up however he likes once the work is done.

shoebox play, autism, cars, speech therapy, special educations

The photo shows one possible way to teach pushing toy cars and using them with a ramp to play. The little boy I used this with was nonverbal, with limited play skills, but he was able to learn how to make the cars go up and down the ramps on the shoebox.

I faded the box by first using just the lid on the table, and then removing the lid. Eventually, he was able to request the color cars and ramps that he wanted and then play independently.

You know that you have made progress when your student requests cars and actually pushes them instead of just lining them up!

Don’t forget to add language skills!

This photo shows how to incorporate requesting in the activity, but communication is so much more than requesting!

shoebox play, play skills, autism. speech therapy, special education

Add verbs and descriptive language:
go up, go down, go fast, go slow, stop, wait, go behind, go in front, etc.

Model visually and verbally- use your student’s AAC device or make a symbol board and point to the visual language as you say it.

Adapt some car books and expand the play to toy garages, roads, and any other type of car play you can think of.


But, what about IEP goals and academic standards?

There is great pressure put upon schools nowadays to align all work to educational standards. However, if you don’t help your students develop representational language and thinking skills, how are they going to comprehend higher level academics?

And if they don’t know how to play, how are they going to develop friendships with their peers? Or the turn-taking skills that are a basis for so many social interactions? Helping students with the language for play and behavioral difficulties are vital to include in your work with students, no matter what IEP goals you also have to address.

Where to start?

1. Figure out the level of your student’s play skills.

2. Pay attention to the toys your student takes out but doesn’t use appropriately.

3. Toys your students looks at, or picks up and sets down, can indicate interest without knowledge of what to do with the toy.

Working with Parents

1. Find out from the parents what kind of toys your student pays attention to at home, and exactly what he does with them.

2. Starting with a type of toy that is available at home has the benefit of offering more chances for carryover.

3. Ask the parents to offer a few options (if they are available) as they may not realize what types of toys you are looking for.  Toys that involve just pushing buttons can be included in some other way during the therapy sessions.

Tips for Shoebox Play Skills

Suggestions for Parents

1.  Buying a toy that is similar to one that your child learned how to play at school can be a good idea for carrying overplay skills at home if this is financially feasible.

2.  It is more beneficial for your child to have a toy he can play with appropriately than to buy a more advanced one that he doesn’t know how to use.

3.  If it is affordable, consider getting 2 of the same toy: one to work on playing within therapy sessions and the other to keep at home to help with generalization skills.

If you found these suggestions to be helpful, you will want to check out my other shoebox play blog post here.

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I’m Linda, an SLP who loves helping you build effective communication skills for your students using strategies and visuals. Pictures are time consuming, so let me make your life easier!

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