Rather than stay on the sidelines as an appreciative observer or narrator of the play it’s important to take a direct role as you engage with your child. In a complementary role in simple pretend play (for example, if the child has just begun to pretend and use objects in expected ways such as using a brush to brush a doll’s hair or pretending to stir “soup” in a pot) you can ask to taste the “soup” the child is repeatedly stirring and, after tasting, ask her to pour some into your dish.
As the child’s play begins to evolve and he begins to understand and take on more varied and complex themes, you can assume a range of roles such as a customer in a restaurant in which she is acting as a cook or server, a patient in the doctor’s office, a passenger in a plane he or she is piloting, or a complementary role in a favorite movie, story, book, or TV/video series. In your role you can take on a voice to distinguish your character from yourself or speak for and animate a stuffed animal or puppet character. You can take on more than one role in the play by, for example, pretending to be the mean stepmother and later taking the role of the Fairy Godmother as your child pretends to be Cinderella. In a pretend car race you can be both an audience member cheering on the child’s racecar and the announcer declaring the start of the race and the winner. Try to vary your voice as you play the different characters or roles. You can also make suggestions to thicken the plot (see next section) from within your role(s) or revert back to yourself and use a “stage whisper” to distinguish yourself from your character to provide support or make a suggestion.
Thicken the plot
By gradually introducing new elements into play we support the child’s ability to think in a more complex and flexible way. Some examples: (1) After exploring the planet her spacecraft has landed on, add a new twist by pretending to examine a fuel gauge and announcing that it’s out of fuel; (2) Have your character ask for a ride on the train the child is repetitively pushing around the train track. Add details by asking if the train stops at “Whoville” (or wherever you choose) and if you can buy a ticket to travel there.
In addition to supporting more complex and flexible thinking, thickening the plot is an important strategy to incorporate if play becomes repetitive or if the child has a tendency to engage in scripted play based on a memorized story or video script. Do join in with scripted play by commenting on the characters and actions. Some children are very sensitive to their partners’ attempts to steer scripted play in a different direction. I recommend very gradually offering new ideas that diverge from the script. These can be very slight divergences from the actions or ideas. Once the child becomes comfortable with these minor changes it may be increasingly possible to collaboratively shift between or elaborate on ideas in the play.
Recognize and encourage emotional expression in play
For children to be able to effectively cope with and manage their feelings, especially children with autism and other developmental or behavioral challenges, they must be offered many opportunities to label, identify, and discuss emotions. Engaging in pretend play with children in which they play out emotional themes is critical to helping them feel comfortable with a full range of emotions. When an emotion, particularly an intense emotion such as anger or aggression, is expressed through words or play rather than the child directly acting it out or simply attempting to inhibit it, it is an enormous advance. Although at first it may not be apparent, allsymbolic play represents the child’s experience and emotion in the present moment whether he or she is feeding a baby doll (feelings of nurturance and dependence on others), making her zoo animals jump excitedly (pleasure and excitement), searching for hidden treasure (curiosity), has dressed up as a super hero with super-human powers (sense of power), or is having dinosaurs attack each other (aggression).
A full range of emotions includes anger and aggression, fears and anxieties, sadness, shame or embarrassment, rejection or loneliness, etc., positive emotional expression such as love, joy and happiness, or a sense of pride and competence, and themes such as nurturance and dependence, curiosity, and desire. When adult partners join in the child’s play and accept and encourage the emotions expressed, including anger and aggression, they help a child become more comfortable with expressing a full spectrum of emotions. In addition to accepting and encouraging the predominant emotions, partners may also gently suggest a theme that counters the child’s predominant emotions. For example for a child who engages in frequent repetitive angry/aggressive play with animals, dolls, or action figures we might have our character offer something helpful or nurturing such as a band aid or to “kiss the booboo”. For the child who is uncomfortable expressing control or assertiveness we can use a big voice and have our character demand, “More pancakes now!” and encourage the child to have their character do likewise.
Tailor play to children’s individual differences
Children on the autism spectrum or with other developmental challenges have a range of individual differences that can significantly impact their social interactions and play. These include motor planning difficulties, high or low muscle tone, auditory processing, visual-spatial processing, sensory processing difficulties (including under-reactivity and over-reactivity/sensitivity), distractibility, hyperactivity, etc. We can support interactions and play by playing to the child’s strengths and modifying and tailoring the way we interact with the child. I will provide a few examples. (For more extensive discussion see the recommended publications and Internet resources listed below).
- For the child who is under-reactive to sensory input and tends to be withdrawn we want to really ham it up in our play while for the child who is under-reactive and craves sensory-motor input combine pretend play with gross motor activities (for example, pretend to be on a pirate ship while bouncing on a trampoline or pretend an outdoor play structure with a climber and slide cis a space ship).
- For the child with auditory processing issues words need to be clear and lengthy monologues should be avoided. Use lots of animation as you act out pretend characters.
- The play of children with visual-spatial processing issues can be very fragmented as they move randomly from one idea or theme to another. They may have difficulty keeping track of and integrating objects and props into their play and can be helped by reintroducing the objects into their play. Children with these issues will also have difficulty sorting through and selecting objects from cluttered toy boxes or shelves. It can be helpful to sort out toys and props and assemble pretend play sets based on themes of interest to the child such as “fire station”, “cooking”, “baby care”, “the zoo”, “restaurant”, “farm”, etc. in plastic bins, cardboard boxes, or on shelves.
Recommended books for supporting the pretend play of children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental challenges:
The Child with Special Needs: Encouraging Intellectual and Emotional Growth by Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder.
Engaging Autism: Using the Floortime Approach to Help Children Relate, Communicate, and Think by Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder.
Floortime Strategies to Promote Development in Children and Teens: A User’s Guide to the DIR®Model by Andrea Davis, Lahela Isaacson, and Michelle Harwell.