The playful approach & emotional regulation for children with ASD

Dec 4, 2020

By Ms Kylie Hinde, Provisional Psychologist at Minds & Hearts

Play is recognised as a child’s main form of communication and it is essential to engaging children. Piaget’s work, which positions children as learning through doing, experimenting and discovering was very influential in this regard. The importance of learning how to use play therapeutically and as a means of communicating with and interacting positively with children has also been noted (Sosinsky, Gilliam and Mayes, 2007). A playful approach is powerful.

Play is an integral part of development, and can be important from the early years and childhood, and even into teenage years. For example, Perry, Hogan, and Malin (2000) write that “Play, more than any other activity fuels the healthy development of children” (p.9).

Sometimes, a playful approach doesn’t come naturally. In the context of children and teenagers with ASD, play is often enjoyable, but can come with associated difficulties. It’s common for children with ASD to have limited preferred modes of play, play in repetitive ways, and to prefer playing alone. Despite this, research has indicated that engaging in targeted play intervention with children with ASD, through a variety of creative mediums (puppets, art, clay, music, drama etc.) can develop:

  • Flexibility in thinking;
  • Expressive language skills;
  • Creativity;
  • Social skills (i.e. the ability to negotiate, compromise and problem solve);
  • Confidence; and
  • Self Esteem.

The positive effects on emotional regulation for children with ASD who engaged in a play-based treatment approach is also noted (Chang et al., 2017).

Many children with ASD who come to therapy are stuck in unhelpful patterns of behaviour. Play within the therapy room can provide a safe space for them to explore alternatives. For example, an anxious child who takes the role of a worried puppet has an excellent opportunity to voice their unhelpful thoughts and try out some new strategies for managing their worries.

Similarly, by using play with instruments and sound scapes, and taking on different characters, children are able to experiment with different perspectives and practice different behavioural options in relevant situations.

Like their children, many parents who come into therapy are stuck in unhelpful patterns of responding, and a playful approach can allow them to see things from a different perspective and try alternative responses. For example, parents might develop an understanding of the way anxiety is transmitted between family members and patterns of behaviour in the family when negative feelings are present. This may help parents be more mindful of the pattern when it occurs, allowing them to step back and respond differently. Play also allows parents to connect with their children in a positive way.

Using play at home

Parents of children with ASD can experience feelings of uncertainty, overwhelm, and sometimes even rejection when it comes to play at home. Designating 10-15 minutes of focused play time each day with your child, in an activity of their choosing, can help to build positive interactions. The below resource may be helpful in developing confidence when engaging in therapeutic play in the home. Choosing one or two of the PRIDE skills to focus on at any one time can be helpful to provide a point of focus in play and practising a playful approach.


Chang, Y., Shih, W., Landa, R., Kaiser, A., & Kasari, C. (2017). Symbolic play in school-aged minimally verbal children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48, 1436-1445. doi:10.1007/s10803-017-3388-6

Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443-463. Accessed via:

Perry, B. D., Hogan, L., & Marlin, S. J. Curiority, pleasure and play: a neurodevelopmental perspective. Haaeyc Advocate, 9-12. Accessed via:

PRIDE: Relationship Enhancement Strategies; developed by Eyberg, S., McNeil, C., & Urquiza, A. (2004). US Davis CAARE Center

Sosinsky, L.S., Gilliam, W.S., & Mayes, L.C. (2007). The preschool child. In A. Martin & F. Volkmar (Eds.), Lewis’s child and adolescent psychiatry: A comprehensive textbook (4th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.