Classic Rebroadcast: Teaching Play Skills to Young Children with Autism

As parents, we want our children to engage in play, and be as social as possible. In today’s episode, I share a rebroadcast of episode 79 where I discuss teaching play skills to young children with autism. We cover what falling behind in play may look like, prerequisites for typically developing play, as well as some introduction into play intervention and play scenarios included in a free digital book I’ve linked.

Play Skills and Autism

My son Lucas was diagnosed with autism one day before his third birthday. He had attended a typical preschool class for two and three-year-olds but instead of exploding in play and language like others his age, he was falling behind. His preschool teachers described him as being in his own world and not participating. While he wasn’t engaging in dangerous or disruptive behavior, he needed more support. We chose to do at home ABA therapy as well as this preschool opportunity with a one on one ABA therapist to attend with him. Not every parent has a choice about sending their child to an all day care, sometimes it has to be done because of work or other situations. However, every child who is falling behind with language, play skills, and social skills really needs some type of one on one ABA and intensive intervention.

Play Skill Prerequisites

In this episode and the play and social skills book I discuss, there are a lot of play suggestions and interventions that many children will not be ready for. You really need to focus on these play skill prerequisites or baby play skills before moving onto more heavily language based play. A typically developing baby will first start engaging in play with eye contact, cooing, and smiling at a caregiver’s face. Between 12 to 18 months they will start pointing, reaching, and gesturing toward items they want to engage with. If the child is pulling the caregiver’s hand to an item and placing it on it, this is called hand leading and is actually an early sign for autism. After 15 months, a typically developing child will bring things to a caregiver to show or get attention. Early play will look like stacking, putting items in something, attending on the floor or at a table, and being aware when someone enters the room. As a typical child develops into a toddler, advanced play will look like sharing, turn taking, greetings, understanding games, pretending, etc. All of these involve a lot of beginning language skills that are really necessary before teaching play skills.

Play Skill Intervention

My approach involves pairing up play while attending a table, to practice language and making it really fun. Once you’ve tackled these beginning skills in expressive and receptive language, you’ll be ready to start trying some of the situations in the play and social skills book. I’ve linked this book, Play Time/ Social Time, available digitally for free. Inside you’ll find some of the play scenarios we discuss in the episode. For example, a bean table with toy props like cups and funnels and cars, with a script to challenge children in engaging with passing toys and sharing attention. Or props for a pretend birthday party, where children will engage in a pretend party; passing plates, “blowing out” candles, etc. Each of the activities shared in the book can be planned and prepared ahead of time and provide suggested items lists and scripts for prompting. If you use these scenarios over and over, be sure not to solely follow the script each time so that the child does not memorize the play scene and is interacting naturally.

This rebroadcast is a great refresher and resource for working on play skills and play interventions. Next week, I will be answering some commonly asked questions about play and social skills, so be sure to tune it!

Classic Rebroadcast: Teaching Play Skills to Young Children with Autism


  • How to teach play skills to young children with autism.
  • What are the play skills for typically developing babies?
  • What advanced play skills can you look for in toddlers?
  • What to do when your toddler doesn’t play with toys?
  • What to do when your toddler doesn’t play with others?
  • How to introduce language to support play skills. 
  • Ideas and activities for play skill intervention.
Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?


Rachel Smith – Turn Autism Around Podcast Transcript

Transcript for Podcast Episode: 187
Classic Rebroadcast: Teaching Play Skills to Young Children with Autism
Hosted by: Dr. Mary Barbera

​​Mary: You're listening to the Turn Autism Around podcast episode number 187. I'm your host, Dr. Mary Barbera. And today we are bringing back a podcast that is one of our most downloaded podcasts. We are approaching 1 million downloads in the next few months, so it's super exciting. And we just started this classic rebroadcast series of our podcast to bring back podcast episodes that we refer to a lot that are very popular. And we also started doing at the same time, I think this is only our third rebroadcast. We also started doing an update or an epic new podcast episode right after it. So for Dr. Murray, we did Dr. Murray's rebroadcast or medications, for instance, and then we did the top five questions we get on medication. So today we are doing the classic rebroadcast on Social Skills, which is podcast 187. Next week, tune in because we're doing the top five questions we get about social and play skills on 188. So let's get to this episode that was previously aired a few years ago, actually. So we're bringing it back. It's all about social and play skills.

Narrator: Welcome to the Turn Autism Around podcast for both parents and professionals in the autism world who want to turn things around, be less stressed, and lead happier lives. And now your host, autism mom, behavior analyst and bestselling author Dr. Mary Barbera.

Autism and Play Skills

Mary: So today's session is all about autism and play skills. And when we think about autism and play skills, we're talking there's two types of play. There's independent play, and those are your leisure activities. And then there's social play, and that is play involving other people. Today, I'm going to focus mostly on that social play component because we tend to teach these things separately, and we want our children to be as social as possible, and we want them to use language. And we want to pair this all up together. So today we are covering mostly that social play component, and it's really hard to separate out play versus social versus language. And many of my free and paid resources all focus heavily on language, because what I have found is it's really hard to build adequate social and play skills without the language to support it. And it's easier for me to teach parents and professionals how to teach language, and then the social and play skills will be taught in sync with that. So as we all know, autism is characteristically diagnosed with the failure to socially communicate social communication skills. Rote, repetitive interests are also usually part of the diagnosis. So that play and social piece is largely missing from kids who are diagnosed or showing signs of autism. I am also going to talk about this book that I got. It's published in 1997. I bought it at a conference. I saw the authors present on this book, I think it was 2000, and I bought the book for like 40 bucks. The good news is you can download this book for free and my staff will post the link for that in the comments or in the show notes. So stay with me here, because this link isn't going anywhere. You're going to be able to download this and I'm going to cover the pieces of this book that I would highly recommend. But most of you listening are actually probably have kids or clients that are not ready for this kind of an explicit instruction on play and social skills. So I'm also going to cover some of the prerequisite skills to get us going. So as you know, or just found out, I fell into the autism world in 1999 when my son was diagnosed with autism one day before his third birthday. His name is Lucas. He's now 23 years old. And when Lucas was two years old, when he was 21 months, my husband first mentioned the possibility of autism and I shut him down. I told him I never wanted to hear the word again and we had a second baby right away. So when Lucas was 18 months old, we had Spencer. And so Lucas was was warm and cuddly with me. He had some language, but at the time I knew nothing about how to teach language. I had enough. I knew nothing about how to teach play skills. And so we thought maybe Lucas would perk up and start really playing with kids better and start talking more. If we enrolled him in a toddler preschool or class, which was a two year old preschool class in our neighborhood, and Lucas just turned two in July. So the so the class started in September. So there were, you know, newly turned two year olds like Lucas. And then there were two and three quarter year olds, almost three years old. There were some kids in there that turn three right in October. So there was a wide range of abilities. And going from a two year old to a three year old, that is an explosive age in terms of play and language. So Lucas had very few words. Like I said, I didn't know how to teach new world words. And I know now he was not diagnosed with autism. And besides, my husband mentioned the possibility of autism. He no one was thinking or talking about autism for Lucas. So he would go to this little toddler class and, you know, he wouldn't have a problem separating some of the other kids had major separation anxiety. Some of the other kids had major aggression when other kids took their toys. Lucas wouldn't really care if somebody took a toy out of his hand, he would just kind of go to the next toy. He would enjoy the little singsongy you know, circle time. But if it got too heavy with language, he was not attentive. He wasn't rolling around on the floor or running out of the classroom. But it became clear mid-year that Lucas was falling behind. And that's when the teacher and the preschool director brought us in, my husband and I. And they basically said Lucas was they used words like in his own world and he wasn't really participating much. He did like to paint and he did like to do the instruments with the shaking, with the songs that he was familiar with. But there was no, you know, understanding of a lot of language. And they were worried that it was time for enrollment for the three year old class. And they were worried about him moving up there that, you know, it was a worse step to student ratio in the toddler course. You know, they didn't have to be potty trained in three year old course classroom. They did the staff. So, you know, there's only one teacher. So there was no way that teacher could leave to change a diaper or anything. So potty training is one of the barriers. And so Lucas stayed back into year old preschool and in that year he was diagnosed right before he turned three. So he repeated the two year old preschool and he went with an ABA therapist. Right. Who shadowed him. And, you know, a lot of people that I see with little kids with autism or signs of autism, some of them don't have a choice, like they work and they need child care. And the child is in daycare all day. But studies have shown, lots of studies have shown for many decades that kids with autism really need intensive one on one ABA and just having a 1 to 1 person shadow you around and prompt you and make sure you don't hit anybody and make sure you don't roll around on the floor. That's not the kind of instruction kids need. Kids need very systematic instruction on language and play skills and imitation and all those sorts of things. So Lucas did get 40 hours a week of ABA, including these two mornings a week where he continued to go to preschool. And for him that was a good thing because he already knew the routine. He was comfortable with the teacher and he had an ABA therapist there who would make sure that he, you know, was fairly focused and didn't make a mess with the pain and didn't get into any trouble. And he continued to progress to the three year old preschool in the four year old preschool. And he went to typically developing preschool, some kids with autism that when they're young, they go to special needs preschool, which was an option for Lucas. But we chose to do home ABA and this typical preschool opportunity. But you know, I had some clients who went into special needs preschool and what I found was sometimes the 1 to 1 environment wasn't good. There was, you know, eight kids and two teachers or three or four teachers and aides. But that's still not a 1 to 1 ratio. And so there was very little pull out time. I had one mom of a boy, I'll call him Adam, and he went to special needs preschool, but he was off every Friday. So Mom thought just expose him into a typical day care on Fridays was going to be a good thing. But when I started with Adam, I observed him at home and in the special needs preschool and I went to daycare on a Friday and he was in his own world. The kids around him were were just running around negotiating play. He was in his own world. And at one point, he even he didn't have a 1 to 1 when I was there. And even at one point he started licking the wall and I had to, of course, get up and stop that. But, you know, little Adam didn't make any progress for a whole year in this. And he went from age three to age four making no progress. And so one of the very common mistakes I see both parents and professionals making is, is they think that just exposing kids to other typically developing kids is going to make social and play skills come naturally. And it involves a lot of work and it usually involves a lot of work with. Teaching language. So I have done several other video blogs and podcasts. I did podcast number 17 on Social Skills, podcast number 18, I had a guest, Ashley Rose, who teaches social skills instruction to older kids usually. And I also did a couple of video blogs on mistakes people make with social skills and also how to teach both independent and social play skills, which you may want to check out. So in addition to thinking exposure's the answer exposure to other kids and thinking that social skills will come naturally. Those are the two big mistakes. And as well as programing too high for social skills. Working on things like manners, turn taking, and greetings and sharing and saying I'm sorry before a child has these prerequisites which are really baby infant type of social and play skills.

Baby Play Skills

Mary: So let's talk about how typically babies, what kind of play and social skills they have. So babies and typically developing toddlers. And I am saying this because if you have a two or three, a 12 year old that doesn't have these baby skills of being social and playing, it's going to be really hard to get to the good stuff in this Playtime Social Time book, which I'm going to talk about in a few minutes. So babies, eye contact, cooing, smiling at a caregiver's face. When you point the infant or toddler should be following your point, they should start pointing between 12 months and by at the very latest by 18 months. And this isn't just like a point here or there. This is a point a lot. Every day you see pointing in a 12 month old to 18 month old, you have to see pointing, reaching, gesturing. If a baby or a toddler takes your hand and puts it on an item that's called hand leading, and that's actually a red flag for autism. So lack of pointing, hand leading are red flags by 18 months of age. But young, typically developing, 12 month old, 15 month old, 18 month olds also bring you things to show you to get your attention. Okay. If you are familiar with the VB-mapp assessment, which I talk about a lot in my verbal behavior bundle courses, the play skills in the 0 to 8 months level include putting items in, stacking blocks, sitting on the floor or at a table and attending to, you know, being aware when people walk in the room, being aware when people call their names. I did a video blog on response to name, which tends to be another red flag for autism. Looking at faces, not just eye contact, but at your face being aware. So when typically developing baby spills, milk or whatever, they would say an 18 month old spills milk or spills water. They would look at their parent, look down at the mess like, oh, gosh, what are we going to do kind of thing to negotiate that where a child with autism might just start playing in the water, just more of a cause and effect kind of thing. Also, when tested with bubbles, for instance, when you blow bubbles and you put it back in and okay, your turn, a typically developing child would be looking at you like, come on, you know, even if they're not talking, they would be looking at you, reaching, giving you the bubbles, looking at your eyes to see if it was okay, if you were going to do it, where a child with signs of autism will just hand the bubbles back to you, to your hand and and kind of require the hand to do all the movement to get the bubbles going again. Okay. So those are kind of those one of the things that people don't realize is that you really need to have some attention. The child needs to be sitting and attending. I am a big fan of bringing very little kids once they can sit safely out of the highchair, out of a strapped booster seat. If you have to do that for a young child or even a child with physical disabilities to keep them in the highchair or in a strapped in chair for safety, that's great. That's fine. But once they can freely walk and run and sit and have balance to sit at a small child sized table, I do find that my approach revolves around pairing that table time up to be so much fun.

Advanced Play Skills

Mary: And we are teaching language, we're teaching cooperation, we're teaching sitting skills, attending. We're teaching beginning language skills. What I find is that some early intervention professionals, me included, when I was in early intervention professional, I would often go in and if the parents didn't have a table or didn't want to use a table, I would spend a lot of my time just chasing the child around the house, trying to, you know, hold up a picture of a cat or a little toy figurine of a cat and saying Cat once or looking out the window and trying to get the child's attention. Look at the tree. There simply just wasn't enough time. Focused attention to really improve language so much. Okay. Once you have those beginning language skills which are covered more in depth in the toddler course as well as the early learner course, which is part of my verbal behavior bundle of courses, then we get to teach or we the child naturally develops skills such as sharing, turn, taking greetings, pretend, play, understanding rules of games, negotiating, cooperative play with others, imitating others, playing games like Simon says, then playing board games and those sorts of things. Also, an advanced social play skill is using manners, saying please and thank you. That comes much later saying sorry. I see that often. I did a video blog on saying sorry where you know, a child with very little language, with little to no language hit someone and then they're being explained to why hitting is bad and say, I'm sorry. They have, you know, hardly any words. And now they're being prompted to say I'm sorry. They just don't understand the whole thing.

Teaching Play Skills

Mary: So we not only have to look at delays in expressive language, but also what they're comprehending. They're receptive language. And some families have no choice. Their kids are in daycare all day long or they are in preschool or at a caregiver's house all day long. And but if you really do want to catch the child up and get them to their fullest potential, they're going to need most likely some serious 1 to 1 instruction. Most research shows that kids with a diagnosable autism need at least 25 hours per week of intensive 1 to 1 ABA instruction. And that's a lot of time. That's, you know, Lucas had 40 hours a week and I don't see my approach changing. The parents are first and foremost and always keeping them in the captain's seat. And then they know how much therapy. It's basically we want to engage the child for all of their waking hours, as many of their waking hours as possible. Their waking hours is something like 100 hours per week. And even for older kids, we want to keep them as engaged as possible. We are in the middle at the time, where I'm recording this in the middle of the COVID shutdown where parents are, you know, really struggling to keep their kids with autism, especially their older kids engaged for long periods of time. There's a lot of free access to screen time and that is leading to lots of stimming, lots of regression in some cases, which is so tough for parents. So to get to those higher skills of using manners and being flexible and and using language in the natural environment, we have to make sure we have those prerequisite skills, the ability to sit and learn, the wanting to be with you. We can't teach kids how to be social and play if they're trying to get away from us, trying to get back to their iPad. And s we have to do it very systematically, make table time, super fun, make it so reinforcing that the child is literally running to the table. I used to have clients where I would show up and they would go to the table and try to drag the table out. That's how excited they were to see me and to get to the materials which we go over in my courses.

Playtime Social Time Book

Mary: But now let's get to this Playtime Social Time book. As I said in the beginning of the session, this Playtime Social Time book was written in 1997. I paid about $40 for it. I saw the authors present at a conference. And what it does is it lays out the importance of teaching play skills. And starting on page 92, we start with 20 different activities in this playbook, such as a bean table, and it lists all the materials you would need, like a bean table or two or three large tubs or bowls of beans, large spoons, different colors, cups, funnels, toy cars and trucks, small baskets and other toys and containers. Then it goes down the list and you could prompt sharing, such as "Tommy hand Suzy, the big scoop or the Blue Funnel" or those sorts of things. As you can see, these are pretty advanced language ability. So we need to know what big and small are. We need to know colors, which surprisingly gets taught much later than most kids get exposed to colors if they're not picking it up on their own. The next activity is a birthday party where we would gather table chairs, plates, spoons, Play-Doh that you can use to make pretend cakes, teapot or pitcher. Ten pegs for use of candles or you can use real candles. So what I have recommended to both teachers, these are preschool teachers or autism support classroom teachers is to make a couple of these boxes so you have the materials all together. So I would have in this birthday party box, I might have the script on top. And it's really important too that you don't use the script rotley every time the same. And it's not to say that if they if the child doesn't know big and small, you would just omit that, that these are just ideas. One of the problems with kids with autism, they get very rote. So I would have a being table box and then I would have a birthday party box of of the materials already gathered. And that way we can kind of go through some natural environment teaching, whether that's at the table or on the floor, whether that's in the classroom or at home. I just find that this book, starting on page 92, there's 20 activities and you might even have other activities that you could just page through these and get some ideas. Okay, another great part of the book. So I like two major parts of this book, the play time, social time book, page 136 We have scripts that teach systematically teach social skills to small groups of children. So I have recommended these social skills groups are they're more they're scripts such as language for learning direct instruction scripts. So we would have a small group of children, you could do this if you have multiple siblings at home or you're in a preschool or an ASD classroom, you could run this: Today, We're going to talk about sharing. Sharing is....what are we going to talk about today? And then the class would say sharing. If you have a child who's not talking, they are not ready for this. You have a child who doesn't understand any you know, isn't able to label, to request items. That's really where you want to start back and teach them some beginning language before we get into this book. But I do know that there are many children who get up to this book or the play and social skill needs that this book covers. And I find it to be a great resource, especially since it's free. We are going to link that in the right below, wherever you're watching or listening.

Mary: So in summary and then play skills, independent play skills also are a whole different thing to teach them. Maybe we'll do another session on that some time. But these social skill play skills for kids with autism are super important to teach. Hopefully I gave you some good ideas on where to get started and to really look at the language ability of the child and the play in social abilities before we program way too high, before we expect things to come in naturally and before we expect that just exposure to typically developing kids is going to is going to work out well. I have found that if the adult really teaches a child how to play, we can often transfer these skills to playing with other kids, other typically developing kids or kids with delays or disabilities. So I hope you enjoyed that short presentation on autism and play skills. And for more information about my courses and how you can get started with some of those major prerequisite skills, you can go and take the quiz at

Mary: If you're a parent or an autism professional and enjoy listening to this podcast, you have to come check out my online course and community where we take all of this material and we apply it. You'll learn life changing strategies to get your child or clients to reach their fullest potential. Join me for a free online workshop at where you can learn how to avoid common mistakes. You can see videos of me working with kids with and without autism. And you can learn more about joining my online course and community at a very special discount. Once again, go to for all the details. I hope to see you there.