How to teach your child with autism using child-led play

Last updated on April 16th, 2020 at 11:35 am

Because nobody likes to learn everything at a desk! And nobody should have to, especially when learning skills in a variety of contexts can be very beneficial for learning.

According to a classic psychology experiment, you are more likely to remember new information if you are tested in the place where you learned the material. So scuba divers who were taught information on land recalled the info better when they were tested again on dry land and the divers who were taught under water recalled the info more accurately when tested under the deep blue sea.

Now if you relate this back to teaching your child, if you only teach them things at the table, then the chances are that they will be less likely to perform this skill in other contexts.

For example, you may have taught your child at the table how to differentiate between the colours red, yellow and green. But can they identify the colour red when it is lit up on a traffic light on their local street?


So how do you start incorporating teaching within your child’s natural environment?

The key to teaching successfully in a play-based setting is motivation, motivation, motivation!

  1. Observe which activates that your child is naturally motivated to do.
  2. Following this motivation, think of some skills which would be compatible with practicing and teaching through these activities which your child enjoys. It may take a bit of thought, but you might be amazed at the scope of language and skills that can be taught through simple activities such as playdough. Pre-planning ahead of time the skills which you want to teach through play ensures that you make the most of every teaching opportunity.

This is your chance to put on your thinking cap and get creative!

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Example: Peppa Pig Playset

Does your child love playing with their Peppa pig playset and figures? Then this this is a great opportunity to teach. You could teach….

Request for items or actions that they want

Hold the playset so it just out of reach, they reach for it and say “Open” the box.
Or“Give me” the ___ (Toy, car, horse, bench).  “Move” the car. “Tidy up” the toys.

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Echoic’s: Used to teach the sound/sign/PEC symbol/word for something which your child wants, but doesn’t know

: “Say …..(P or Pig)” > “Pig” > “Well done” + gives the Pepa pig toy

Expressive Labels

Hold up an object (i.e. toy car) and say “What is it?”= “Car”

Matching items

Give your child a Pepa pig character (such as a pig) and ask your child to “Match the pig” to a pig within the playset. Make sure that there is a least one other animal character within the playset so they have the opportunity to learn, not just match it to any old character!


Receptive language, to show that your child can understand and listen to what other people are saying to them.

“Show me the……” “Give me the…” “Point to the…..” >>>> Your child gives or points to the correct object.

You could also add attributes such as “Touch the blue ball” to see if your child can identify different coloured objects within the playset.

Motor imitation skills: teach your child to model actions

“Copy me” as you open the door to the playset house >>>>> your child opens the playset door >>> Fabulous! + access to bubbles/ another preferred item.

Turn taking

“Your turn” holding the Pepa pig car…… then “My turn” >>> “Great taking turns” + hug


Top Tips

Celebrate correct responses!

Ensure that if your child does the correct response, that you give them verbal praise and something else that they really like i.e. bubbles, tickles, a sticker, their teddy bear. This will make it more likely that they will do the same correct response again in the future. In other words, you are reinforcing their correct response. For more info about reinforcement, click here.

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Help’ em out when necessary!

If your child does not do the correct response that you wanted to see, don’t just leave them struggling, help them out! Give them a prompt to teach them the correct response. The type of prompt that you use will depend on the type of skill that you are teaching.

  • For example, if your teaching motor imitation, then your child might need a physical prompt to teach the skill initially.
  • If your teaching matching items, they might need you to gesture or point to the correct item for them to select the correct one.
  • Or if you hold up a toy car and ask “What is it?” and your child doesn’t respond, give them a cue which is appropriate for the type of communication system that your child uses. For example if they are verbal, give them a partial verbal prompt by sounding out the first letter of the item (“C”) and then increase the prompt as needed.

But whatever kind of prompt that you need to use, remember to try and fade out the prompts as soon as you can! Otherwise your child might become dependent on your cues and never become independent in the skill.

So what are your thoughts on this method of teaching? How do you teach your child in real-world situations? Let me know what you think!

And if you want more ideas on how to teach your child in their natural environment, then be sure to check out this website too!

Happy playing!

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6 thoughts on “How to teach your child with autism using child-led play

  1. Thought provoking article and I certainly wished I had been more engaged in a variety of ways whilst learning.

    It’s really useful considering the type of learner a child may be and where a parent has been having difficulty they may then find success using some of the techniques outlined.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. This is a really creative post! Everything is well thought out and explained in a way which makes it easy to understand but still accounts for all the relevant behavioural principles. Great use of real life examples which add a more personal touch and the video clips and animations are a really fun addition!

  3. It’s really interesting to hear your perspective on this Laura. A lot of behaviour analytic (ABA) therapies that are for children with autism tend to be portrayed as just working at the table. Which in some ways makes sense because the adult has more control of the environment (I.e keep a stash of things that their child likes in a box nearby, but out of reach) so that the child will be more motivated to work. However, the problem with this kind of teaching is that kiddies can’t always generalise what they learn at the table to real life situations. And it’s those real life situations that really count!

    The theory behind this comes from Skinner and his analysis of language as being something called “verbal behaviour”. But it’s really great to see you link it to other theories!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this article. Very well explained and well written. I am always looking forward to your next article-love how you use behaviour analysis to explain real life/current situations. Love it-well done you 🙂

  5. This is really, really interesting.
    In terms of child development, it kind of incorporates parts of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories. Piaget saw the child as a lone scientist, who was responsible for developing their own cognition from ‘discovery play’. Vygotsky thought that children needed social interaction to learn, and used scaffolding (adult help slowly taken away as the child grew more competent). Really interesting that a loose combination of theories + reinforcement can be so useful!

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