child playing

Pretend play, also known as imaginative play, is an essential part of child development. It helps children develop their language and social skills, as well as their creativity and problem-solving abilities. However, for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), pretend play can be particularly challenging. 


In this blog post, we will explore the differences between typical pretend play and pretend play in children with autism, why it is difficult for them, and provide some tips for parents to support their children’s imaginative play skills.


Child Development, Language, and Social Skills

Pretend play is an important part of child development. It helps children develop their language and social skills by providing them with opportunities to practice communication and engage in imaginative play scenarios. During pretend play, children use their imaginations to create fictional scenarios and act them out using toys, objects, or even themselves. This type of play encourages creativity, empathy, and problem-solving skills, all of which are important for child development.


For children with ASD, social communication challenges are a common characteristic. They may have difficulty understanding social cues, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, which can make it harder for them to engage in imaginative play scenarios. They may also have difficulty initiating and maintaining conversations and may prefer to engage in solitary activities.


Differences in Pretend Play between Typical Children and Children with Autism

Typical pretend play involves children engaging in imaginary scenarios, such as pretending to be a doctor or a teacher, and acting out these scenarios with toys or objects. They may also engage in role-play with their peers or family members. Children with autism, however, may struggle with this type of play due to their difficulty with social communication and their sensory processing differences.


For example, a child with autism may not understand the social cues involved in pretend play, such as taking turns, sharing, and communicating with others. They may also have sensory sensitivities that make certain types of play uncomfortable or unpleasant. For instance, a child who is hypersensitive to touch may not enjoy playing with certain textures or materials, while a child who is sensory seeking may prefer activities that provide intense sensory input, such as spinning or jumping.


Why Pretend Play is Difficult for Children with Autism

Pretend play can be difficult for children with autism due to several reasons. As previously mentioned, social communication challenges and sensory processing differences can make it hard for them to engage in imaginative play scenarios. Additionally, children with autism may have difficulty with abstract thinking, which is needed for pretend play. They may also struggle with changes to routines or new situations, which can make it challenging for them to engage in novel play scenarios.


Teaching play skills to children with autism

Teaching play skills to children with autism is an important part of promoting their development. Here are some strategies parents can use to teach play skills to their children:


  1. Model Play Behaviors – Children with autism often learn best through observation and imitation. Parents can model play behaviors by engaging in pretend play scenarios with their children, demonstrating how to use toys and objects in different ways, and showing how to take turns and share.
  2. Break Play Behaviors into Small Steps – For children with autism who struggle with abstract thinking, breaking play behaviors into small steps can make them easier to understand and follow. For example, when playing with blocks, parents can start by showing their child how to stack one block on top of another, and gradually increase the complexity of the task as their child becomes more comfortable.
  3. Use Visual Supports – Visual supports can be helpful in teaching play skills, particularly for children who benefit from visual aids. Parents can use visual schedules, picture cards, and storyboards to outline the steps of a play scenario or show how to use toys and objects in different ways.
  4. Reinforce Positive Play Behaviors – When children exhibit positive play behaviors, such as taking turns or sharing, parents can reinforce these behaviors by providing positive feedback and praise. This can help to encourage the child to continue using these behaviors in the future.
  5. Provide Opportunities for Practice – Practice is essential for developing play skills. Parents can provide opportunities for their child to practice play behaviors in a variety of settings, such as at home, at school, or during therapy sessions.
  6. Tailor Play Activities to Your Child’s Interests – Children with autism are more likely to engage in play behaviors that align with their interests. Parents can tailor play activities to their child’s interests, such as using toys or objects related to their favorite characters or hobbies.
  7. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is a type of therapy that has been shown to be effective in teaching play skills to children with autism. ABA therapy uses a structured, step-by-step approach to teach new skills, including play behaviors.

By using these strategies, parents can help their child develop their play skills and promote their overall development. It’s important to remember that every child is unique, and what works for one child may not work for another. Therefore, it’s important to experiment with different strategies and techniques to find what works best for your child


Tips for Parents of Children with Autism

  1. Start Small and Build Gradually – Begin with activities that your child enjoys and gradually introduce new elements. For example, if your child likes playing with cars, you can start by introducing a simple scenario, such as driving the cars on a road. As your child becomes more comfortable, you can add more details, such as stopping at a gas station or having a race.
  2. Use Visual Supports – Many children with autism benefit from visual supports, such as pictures or symbols, to help them understand and engage in pretend play scenarios. You can create visual schedules or storyboards that outline the steps of a pretend play scenario or use pictures to represent different characters or objects.
  3. Provide Opportunities for Joint PlayJoint play, where parents and children play together, can be particularly helpful for promoting pretend play skills in children with autism. By modeling pretend play scenarios and providing social cues, parents can help their children learn the skills needed for engaging in imaginative play.
  4. Use Your Child’s Interests – Find ways to incorporate your child’s interests into pretend play scenarios. For example, if your child loves dinosaurs, you can create a pretend play scenario where they are exploring a prehistoric world or digging for dinosaur bones.
  1. Use Sensory-Friendly Materials – Consider using sensory-friendly materials, such as soft fabrics or non-toxic play dough, that are less likely to trigger sensory sensitivities.
  2. Be Patient and Encouraging – Pretend play skills can take time to develop, so it’s important to be patient and encouraging. Praise your child’s efforts and provide positive feedback, even if the scenario doesn’t go exactly as planned.
  3. Seek Support – If you are struggling to support your child’s pretend play skills, consider seeking support from a therapist or autism specialist. They can provide additional strategies and resources to help promote your child’s development.



Pretend play is an important aspect of child development, promoting language and social skills, creativity, and problem-solving abilities. While children with autism may struggle with pretend play due to social communication challenges, sensory processing differences, and difficulty with abstract thinking, there are several strategies parents can use to support their child’s development. 


By starting small, using visual supports, providing opportunities for joint play, using your child’s interests, using sensory-friendly materials, being patient and encouraging, and seeking support when needed, parents can help their child build their pretend play skills and promote their overall development.


Latest posts by golden-user (see all)
Sign up for our Newsletter

Enter your email and stay on top of things,