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The Importance of Imaginative Pretend Play in Asperger’s and HFA Children

“How important is pretend play for children on the autism spectrum? Do they have the ability to engage in this form of play, or do they lack the necessary imagination skills? What can parents do to help their child if he or she has difficulty interacting with peers in this regard?”


In a nutshell, imaginative pretend play is critical to a child’s development, for example:
  • Thinking Skills— Pretend play provides the youngster with a variety of problems to solve. Whether it's two kids wanting to play the same role or searching for the right material to make a roof for a playhouse, the youngster calls upon important cognitive thinking skills that she will use in every aspect of her life, now and forever.
  • Social and Emotional Skills— When the youngster engages in pretend or dramatic play, she is actively experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life. Through cooperative play, she learns how to share responsibility, take turns, and creatively problem-solve. When the youngster pretends to be different characters, she has the experience of "walking in someone else's shoes," which helps teach the important moral development skill of empathy. It’s normal for kids to see the world from their own egocentric point of view, but through maturation and cooperative play, they will begin to understand the feelings of others. The youngster also builds self-esteem when she discovers she can be anything just by pretending.
  • Language Skills— Have you ever listened-in as your son or daughter engaged in imaginary play with her dolls or peers? You will probably hear some words and phrases you never thought she knew! In fact, parents often hear their own words reflected in the play of their kids. Kids can do a perfect imitation of parents and teachers. Pretend play helps the youngster understand the power of language. Also, by pretend playing with others, she learns that words give her the means to re-enact a story or organize play. This process helps the youngster to make the connection between spoken and written language (a skill that will later help her learn to read).

Unfortunately, the ability to engage in imaginative pretend play does not occur naturally in some children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). For those who do engage in pretend play, it’s usually confined to one or two themes, enacted repeatedly without variation. These enactments are often quite elaborate, but are pursued over and over again and do not usually involve peers unless they are willing to follow exactly the same pattern. Oftentimes, the themes seen in this pseudo-pretend play continue as preoccupations in adult life and form the main focus of an imaginary world.

Systematic research has increasingly demonstrated a series of clear benefits of kid’s engagement in pretend games from the ages of about 3 through 7:
  • Early imaginative play is associated with increased creative performance later in life.
  • Make-believe games are forerunners of the important capacity for forms of self-regulation (e.g., reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility, and empathy). 
  • Pretend play allows the expression of both positive and negative feelings, and the modulation of affect (i.e., the ability to integrate emotion with cognition).
  • Studies have demonstrated cognitive benefits associated with pretend play (e.g., increases in language usage including subjunctives, future tenses, and adjectives). 
  • Taking on different roles allows kids the unique opportunity to learn social skills (e.g., communication and problem solving).
  • The important concept of “theory of mind” (i.e., an awareness that (a) one’s thoughts may differ from those of other people, and (b) there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable) is closely related to imaginative play. 
  • When kids use toys to introduce possible scenarios or friends, the representation of multiple perspectives occurs naturally.

When young people with Asperger’s and HFA are encouraged to tell their own stories, paint their own pictures, act-out their own feelings, or build their own pretend world, they are better able to hold onto their own hopes and dreams for a bright future. Given the importance of developing an ability to think imaginatively, parents should make a diligent effort to foster this skill.

If your child with Asperger’s or HFA has great difficulty joining-in with peers during pretend play, there are some things you can do to assist in this area. Below are some tips:

1. The prop-box: Consider creating a prop-box or closet filled with objects to spark your child’s fantasy world. A few simple props will spur her on to play imaginatively. For example, a restaurant can be made with a table, some play food, a menu (which your youngster can create), an apron and some play money. You might be the first patron of her new restaurant, asking her what the specials are and how much money different items cost. 

Here are some similar theme ideas:
  • Beauty Shop: Hair rollers, hair dryer, brushes and combs, barrettes and hair clips
  • Hospital: Prescription pad, doctor kit, a blanket and pillow, play food
  • School: Crayons and pencils, desk or table, alphabet, books, a bell
  • Travel/Airplane: Chairs, pillows and blankets, snacks for the plane, suitcases, maps, postcards
  • Zoo: Plastic or stuffed animals, blocks for building cages, zookeeper hat or vest

Here are just a few items to include in the prop-box:
  • Cooking utensils, dishes, plastic food containers, table napkins, silk flowers
  • Fabric pieces, blankets, or old sheets for making costumes or a fort
  • Large plastic crates, cardboard blocks, or a large empty box for creating a "home"
  • Old clothes, shoes, backpacks, hats
  • Old telephones, phone books, magazines
  • Stuffed animals and dolls 
  • Theme-appropriate materials (e.g., postcards, used plane tickets, foreign coins, photos for a pretend vacation trip, etc.)
  • Writing materials for taking phone messages, leaving notes, and making shopping lists

2. Playing along with the child: Parents can join in the pretend play and take on the role their youngster assigns them, following her lead. Parents can help set things up for play too (e.g., give the child old jewelry to play with; let her try on and dress up in your hats, shoes or clothes for fun; make a train with chairs, etc.).

3. Role-playing: Along with your child, engage in a variety role-play activities (e.g., offer to help with the dishes in the play kitchen, be the first in line at the cash register, or act out the part of a customer in a restaurant).

4. Frequent communication: Research has demonstrated that parents who communicate to their kids regularly (e.g., explaining features about nature and social issues, reading or telling stories at bedtime, etc.) seem to be most likely to foster pretend play. Thus, you may want to search for opportunities to teach your child about things related to the weather (e.g., why we have lightning and thunder), have daily “story-telling time” at the dinner table, “reading time” before bed, and so on.

5. Focusing on topics of interest: Kids find the material for their pretend play from books, educational field trips, and everyday life. If your youngster shows interest in a particular topic, encourage her to focus her play around that topic (e.g., a trip to the aquarium might lead her to go on an undersea adventure; reading books about fish, diving or the ocean or watching themed movies will provide more information for her to include in her “script”).

6. Providing time for open-ended play: The most important gift you can give your youngster is the gift of time. Be careful not to involve her in so many activities that there is no time for play. Kids who are not given the time to play often can’t entertain themselves. Creativity and imagination need time to blossom, so be sure to block some time off in your schedule for open-ended play. Provide your youngster with some background information and a few simple props, and give her time to unleash her creativity. Then sit back with a cup of coffee and delight in all that she comes up with.

The creativity and imagination of kids on the autism spectrum can be magical – but they have to be taught! Imagination and pretend play skills do not come naturally to most of these “special needs” children. Since it’s a key to success in nearly everything a child does later in life, creativity is a key component of health and happiness – and a core skill to practice with your son or daughter. Creativity is not limited to artistic and musical expression—it’s also essential for science, math, and social/emotional intelligence. Creative kids are more flexible and better problem-solvers, which makes them more able to deal with change.

Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

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