How do children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) prefer to play? Two researchers from SUNY Buffalo State and the Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at the Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo observed the play preferences of children with ASD in order to find out. Kathy Ralabate Doody  and Jana Mertz attended at a monthly event—the “Au-some Evening”—held at the Explore & More children’s museum, which offers interactive exhibits designed to engage children through play, and noted what types of play most attracted the children.

Children at the event were able to freely select the activities in which they wanted to participate. The researchers observed that the most popular activity was a “climbing stairs” exhibit. This activity involved climbing a short staircase, dropping a ball from the top, and watching the ball fall. The other favorites of the children with ASD were a windmill that they could push and watch spin and a table filled with rice that they could touch. The children tended to avoid stations that encouraged pretend play like imagining oneself as a butterfly or cooking in a play kitchen.

Doody explained that children with ASD prefer activities that engage multiple senses. This includes the traditional five senses as well as what she describes as the vestibular and proprioceptive senses, which govern balance and responses to movement, respectively. They also like to be in motion or watch things move. This is why the children wanted to play at the windmill exhibit, for example. On the other hand, the children with ASD avoided pretend play situations because these require Theory of Mind, which does not tend to develop in people with ASD until later on in life, if at all.

“Children with ASD chose to engage in play that provided strong sensory feedback, cause-and-effect results, and repetitive motions,” commented Doody, assistant professor of education at SUNY Buffalo State.

This research can be used by educators and clinicians to develop activities and offer rewards that are stimulating for children on the autism spectrum. This is especially useful information since children with ASD often face difficulties in communicating their preferences.

Doody also stated that she would like to see play options that are appealing to children with ASD built in recreational facilities, playgrounds, and school programs. This would help them to be included and encourage interaction with neurotypical peers.

This research is published in the North American Journal of Medicine and Science.

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