Social Activities Structured play

Structured play can be a good way for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to learn play skills like sharing, taking turns and being with other children.

How autism spectrum disorder can affect play

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) enjoy playing, but they can find some types of play difficult. It’s common for them to have very limited play, play with only a few toys, or play in a repetitive way. For example, your child might like spinning the wheels on a car and watching the wheels rotate, or might do a puzzle in the same order every time.

Because ASD affects the development of social skills and communication skills, it can also affect the development of important skills needed for play, like the ability to:

  • copy simple actions
  • explore the environment
  • share objects and attention with others
  • imagine what other children are thinking and feeling
  • respond to others
  • Take turns.

How structured play can help children with autism spectrum disorder

Structured play is when a grown-up provides resources, starts play or joins in with children’s play to offer some direction or guidelines. Free play is unplanned play that just happens, depending on what children are interested in at the time. Both are both important for children’s development, but structured play activities are particularly useful for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who are learning early play skills like sharing, taking turns and interacting with other children.

This is because a structured play activity usually gives children clear guidelines about what to do and when. It also usually has a clear end point. This reduces the number of options that can come up in a play scenario, which can sometimes be overwhelming for children with ASD. A clear structure can also help your child understand the steps, skills, activities or ideas that are needed to get to the end goal of the game.

All of this creates a lower-stress environment where your child can practice the skills he needs both to play and interact successfully with other children. Once your child has learned the steps, over time she might be able to start and finish the activity without support.

How to structure a play activity for children with autism spectrum disorder

The first step is choosing an appropriate play activity. Activities that have a clear goal and ending are best, like jigsaws, puzzle books, song and action DVDs, picture lotto and matching games.

Next, you could try creating a visual schedule:

    1. Represent each step of the activity with visual cues attached to a board. The cues could be objects, pictures or words.
    2. Pull off each cue during the activity as your child progresses, so that you clearly show what the next stage of the activity is.
    3. Gradually reduce your support until your child can use the schedule and complete the activity on his own.

To start with, your child might not find the activity or its end result fun by itself. You might need to add something else to help your child learn that this type of play can be fun. For example, if your child loves your tickles, you can tickle her after each stage of the activity is finished, and then have a big tickle session at the end of the whole activity. This extra reinforcement will help your child to have a positive experience of the structured play activity while he’s still learning play skills.

Top tips for structured play with children with autism spectrum disorder

These tips can help you and your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) gets the most out of structured play:

  1. Use your child’s interests. For example, if your child loves Thomas the Tank Engine, start by using Thomas-themed jigsaws, puzzles or colouring books.
  2. Choose activities that your child can do. Think about what stage your child is at and try moving play onto the next stage. For example, if she’s banging blocks, introduce some turn-taking with the blocks
  3. Use your child’s strengths. For example, if your child responds well to visual cues, try a very visual activity like sorting coloured blocks.
  4. Talk only as much as you need to.
  5. Keep playtime short.
  6. Redirect inappropriate play. For example, if your child is banging blocks together, you could prompt him to stack them, or redirect him to an activity that involves banging.

Developing Play

As your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) becomes more able to complete structured play activities on her own, you can begin to expand how long you play and the number of activities you do with your child. For example, once your child can complete a few activities, try to set up a few different play stations around the house. This way, your child can practice moving between activities and focusing on different things without having you there all the time.

What is it?
Structured play groups help students develop their play and social engagement skills. They involve carefully chosen play activities which encourage peer interaction and build social and communication skills. The groups normally include a balance of students with social support needs and typically developing peers who can act as models. Activities and materials used are carefully selected to foster interactive play and skill building is supported by teachers and other adults.

How do I use it?

  1. Identify no more than two students with social support needs.
  2. Select two or three peers who are good at socialising, are helpful to others and able to follow adult direction well.
  3. Identify no more than two goals for the group e.g. the student will learn turn-taking while interacting with peers in a fun activity
  4. Select activities for the group e.g. construction or dramatic play activities that match the interests of the students
  5. Collect the necessary materials for the activity
  6. The play session should last no longer than 30 minutes.
  7. Implement the play group at appropriate times e.g. during whole class free play or group activity times. The adult/teacher helps scaffold the play, offering advice or direction when needed.

Getting Started (Activity or Event)

What important events or activities tend to set up the behaviour?

When the individual experiences or is engaged in one of the following:

  • Is in the community
    Out on an excursion with the school, out shopping, attending a club, playing or attending a sporting activity
  • Has recently been disciplined
    Has been reprimanded for an action or behaviour, has had something important confiscated as a consequence of an action or behaviour.
  • Is engaged in an activity or task they dislike
    Has been asked to complete a non-preferred task or activity.
  • Is eating
  • Is working in a group
    Small group Maths or English lesson, social skills group, unmonitored small group learning such as independent reading groups.
  • Is working independently 
    Has been asked to complete a task on their own without assistance.
  • Is in a regular class
    Is working with the rest of the class in the classroom in a standard lesson (e.g. Maths, English)
  • Is playing 
    Is playing inside or outside during a scheduled break, is engaged in free time in class, this could be structured or unstructured, alone or with others.
  • Is returning to school after a break
    Has returned after a holiday or a public holiday, after being sick, after a suspension.
  • Has had a change in routine 
    Has a relative visiting, has a relief/ new teacher, doctor/ dentist appointment.
  • Is attending a special event
    At school- Sports Day, Anzac Day Parade, and incursion. At home- a friend’s birthday, a sporting event.
  • Is in a specialist lesson 
    Music, PE and Art
  • Is transitioning between activities or settings
    Transitioning can refer to moving from one classroom to another, one classroom activity to another or from an activity to playtime or lunch. It can also refer to moving from the playground to lining up or getting out of the car to go into the classroom. Therefore a transition is any moment in time where the individual is required to move from one area or activity to another. It is important to recognise that some people may be more or less sensitive to the changes between activities, locations or people, so although you may feel that the change was minimal (e.g. moving from working on their desk in the class to working on a desk in the library), this may feel more significant to somebody else. Other examples include moving between classes, from class to lunch, home to school, home to job or starting a new class or school year.
  • Is unwell or tired 
    This may be identified by the individual or others who know them.

What happens before

What happens to set off the problem behaviour? Often it’s when someone..

  • Directs them to start or continue with a disliked task
    Directs individual to start or continue with a non-preferred task or something that the individual finds difficult or uncomfortable.
  • Directs them to stop a liked task
    Asks them to stop an enjoyable activity or task.
  • Does not respond to their approach 
    Individual does not respond to another person’s approach and continues with the behaviour or activity e.g. does not notice them trying to gain attention, does not stop talking to another person when approached.
  • Does not respond to their request 
    Individual does not respond to another person’s request e.g. does not answer a question or join in with an activity
  • Gives a physical prompt
    Individual is given a physical guide to complete a task or reengage with an activity e.g. touches person, or taps them on their arm or shoulder to gain their attention or guides their hand towards the task.
  • Gives a verbal direction or request 
    Somebody says a direction or request to the individual. This may be directly to the individual or to a group of people.
  • Gives verbal praise 
    Verbally praises the person for something, either about the person themselves or something they have said or done e.g. “good job” or “you did really well in that sport lesson”. This may be directly to the individual or to the whole class.
  • Gives a verbal reminder 
    Somebody reminds the individual of something by saying it to them e.g. “it’s time to get in the car”, “go back to class”, “brush your teeth”, “don’t forget to pack your lunch”. This may be directly to the individual or to a group of people.
  • Gives a verbal reprimand 
    Tells individual off, possibly for doing something or saying something .
  • Makes an unexpected noise or sound 
    Person or people nearby make sudden noise or sound such as a hand clap or shouting .
  • Moves away 
    Moves away from the person intentionally or unintentionally.
  • Moves closer 
    Moves closer to the person intentionally or unintentionally
  • Refuses a request 
    Refuses to do something or let the person do something

What happens after

What happens as a result of the individual engaging in this behaviour?
The individual is then:

  • Given a verbal redirection to stop the behaviour
    The individual is given a spoken instruction which has the aim of stopping the behaviour and directing them towards a more acceptable behaviour e.g. “Chairs are for sitting. No standing please” .
  • Given more information or clarification of the direction or request 
    Clarify and simplify the expected task. Break it into one or two steps at a time. Make the directions explicit.
  • Allowed to remain with preferred task or activity
    Is allowed to continue with the an activity or task they enjoy or would chose.
  • Reminded of the rules and consequences
    Is reminded of house, school or workplace rules and the consequences that follow if the rules are broken.
  • Asked the Responsible Thinking Questions
    Responsible thinking questions allow the individual to make choices about their actions. E.g. What are you doing? What are the expectations? What happens when you ignore these expectations? Is this your goal? What do you want to do now?
  • Given a forced choice
    Instead of telling the individual what to do, options are presented as a choice e.g. “do you want to do your Maths or English homework?” or “If you don’t complete this activity now you are choosing to finish it at break time”
  • Ignored 
    Others do not respond to the behaviour, either purposefully or not.
  • Given attention by peers 
    Peers watch on, join in or encourage the behaviour (this may be positive or negative attention).
  • Given 1:1 attention from adult 
    An adult directs their attention to the individual exhibiting the behaviour. This may be positive or negative attention, and would include things like speaking to the individual to tell them that their behaviour is wrong or sitting with the individual to encourage them to complete a task.
  • Given reduced task demands
    Individual is given a section of the task to complete instead of all of the task.
  • Redirected to a different task or activity
    Individual is directed to a different task.
  • Isolated
    Individual is removed from the area where the behaviour has occurred or the people around the individual are removed from the area.
  • Sent to another area
    Individual is directed away from the location they were when the behaviour occurred, this would include being sent out of the class or to a safe zone.

Problem Behaviour

What does the problem behaviour look like?
The individual:

  • Is off task but remains seated in appropriate area 
    Is not participating in the requested task but is not moving around the room.
  • Is off task and distracting other students
    Is not participating in the requested task and is disturbing others by moving around or being noisy
  • Does not respond to direction or request
    Will not follow directions. Ignores requests.
  • Leaves their seat without permission
    Gets up and moves around the room they are in when it may not be appropriate.
  • Makes repetitive requests or sounds
    Repeats questions or sounds, may be distracting for those around.
  • Verbally refuses or rejects directions or request 
    This may be with words (e.g. “no”, “go away” or other sounds in response to being asked to follow a direction.
  • Becomes verbally abusive 
    This may be noises, single words or phrases e.g. shouting or swearing.
  • Becomes physically aggressive 
    Becomes physically aggressive towards the person or people around them e.g. hits, bites, throws objects, moves furniture or physically attacks another person.
  • Destroys property
    Breaks or damages property around them (this may include their own possessions or ripping up pieces of work).

Desired Behaviour

What do you want to see them doing instead?

  • Follow the direction
    Individual follows the direction given and participates in the activity requested.
  • Start task 
    Individual starts or attempts task after a suitable amount of take up time.
  • Stop task 
    Individual stops the task.
  • Acknowledge the reminder
    Verbally or non-verbally acknowledge that they have been given a reminder
  • Acknowledges the praise
    Individual acknowledges the praise verbally or non-verbally.
  • Work quietly
    Work quietly without distracting others individuals from their own work
  • Tolerate light brief touch
    Individual is able to accept a light brief touch, which may be for a redirection, reminder or attention getter or may be due to somebody witting in the close vicinity.
  • Ask person to move away or closer 
    Individual is able to verbally or non- verbally request that a person moves closer to them or away from them.
  • Ask for help
    Individual is able to ask another person for assistance verbally or non-verbally.
  • Ignores interruption or noise
    Individual continues to work without reacting to interruption or noise.
  • Repeats request or question 
    Individual repeats the request or question for clarification.
  • Accepts refusal 
    Individual accepts that their request cannot be fulfilled, e.g. not allowed access to an activity or object they have requested.


What will happen when the individual displays the desired behaviour?

  • Provide tailored adult attention
    Give the individual some specific adult attention e.g. some positive feedback.
  • Given additional time of preferred activity 
    Individual is given some extra time on their preferred activity after the task is complete.
  • Verbal acknowledgement of compliance or success
    Praise or positive feedback. This may need to be done without anyone around the individual hearing.
  • Assign free time or choice of preferred activity 
    Give individual a designated amount of time later in the day to engage in a preferred activity.
  • Offer choice of tasks or scheduling of tasks 
    Give the individual a limited amount of predesignated choices of activity, or allow them to choose when they have to complete the task

Acceptable Alternative

What behaviour would you accept as an alternative while teaching the desired behaviour?

  • Ask for help 
    Lets someone know that they require help (verbally or non-verbally).
  • Tell adult they are uncomfortable 
    Lets an adult know they are feeling uncomfortable (verbally or non-verbally).
  • Politely decline
    Lets the other person know that they do not want to join in the new activity.
  • Accepts the reminder 
    Individual accepts the reminder and moves to the task after a period of take up time.
  • Go to pre-arranged safe space
    Moves to pre-arranged safe zone such as a tent or quiet corner in the classroom, support room or buddy class. At home, this may be their bedroom.
  • Works on alternative task 
    Works on a task other than the one set, which may or may not be related to the initial task assigned. This may be one the individual has identified or may be one set by the adult.
  • Waits quietly for assistance
    Waits without interrupting other individuals. Possibly engaged in pre-arranged quiet activity.

What is the function, or reason, for the behaviour?

People engage in millions of different behaviors’ each day, but the purpose or “functions” of these different behaviors’ tend to fall into the categories listed below. Remember: once the function has been met the problem behavior should stop. If it doesn’t stop then you haven’t identified the correct function and you will need to revisit the information you have entered. This is a good result – the more functions you rule out the closer you will get to the true function.

These functions are to either get access to, or to stop/avoid:

  1. Stimulation or sensation: This could be escaping from a sensation that is unpleasant (such as a noisy hall or flickering light) or accessing something that is enjoyable. Remember, everybody has different sensory preferences, so what is normal or enjoyable for one person may be uncomfortable or distressing for another.
  2. An item or activity: This could be escaping or avoiding an activity or task that is difficult or not enjoyable, or gaining access to a favourite or preferred item or activity (e.g. access to technology).
  3. Social situation with child: This could be any behaviour to get or stop focused attention from siblings, peers, or other children that are around them. Remember, whilst some individuals find attention from other children positive, others will find it unpleasant and will therefore show behaviours to try and make it stop.
  4. Social situation with adult: This could be any behaviour to get or stop focused attention from parents, teachers or other people that are around them. Remember, being disciplined and told-off might sometimes be a form of gaining engagement from adults.

With this information in mind, take some time to look through the diagram that you have completed and think about what changed as a result of the behavior. Remember, use the information in the diagram to inform you; sometimes the function of behaviors’ can surprise people!