New research sheds light on the play preferences of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

In a recent study, Kathy Ralabate Doody of SUNY Buffalo State found that children with autism generally favor systematic repetitive play that offers broad sensory stimulation. Together with Jana Mertz, a program coordinator at the Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at the Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo, Doody surveyed young participants at the Explore & More Museum's “Au-some Evening” –– a monthly event designed to engage children with autism through play. 

"Children with ASD chose to engage in play that provided strong sensory feedback, cause-and-effect results, and repetitive motions," she said. 

Autism and Sensory Play

Among the many interactive exhibits hosted by the museum, children with autism tend to prefer those that followed rigid mechanized patterns. One example was an activity called “Climbing Stairs,” in which the kids could climb a short staircase, drop a small ball, and watch it descend. 

Other favorites included a windmill that the children could spin, and a table filled with uncooked rice that children could pour through their fingers. 

"Children with ADS sometimes tend to crave motion, and if they can't be moving, they like to look at moving objects," said Doody, noting the broad sensory range that characterized the preferred activities. "So just watching the windmill engaged them. When the windmill turned in response to their push, it also provided cause-and-effect play. And the repetition of the spinning movement provided a third level of satisfaction."

Beyond sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste, the preferred activities generally engaged lesser known senses, particularly the vestibular and proprioception senses –– two senses that correspond to motion through space and joint movement. The observed inclination to engage these faculties supports the idea that children with autism seek to satisfy an insatiable need for kinetic stimuli. 

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Besides illuminating the sensory proclivities attending autism, the findings may help parents suggest activities to children who lack the ability to communicate their own preferences. 

"A child who is playing alone is developing a degree of independence," said Doody. "That can enable the parent or caregiver to engage in other activities, like making dinner or attending to another child. Parents might use a snow globe so the child can observe movement. Aquariums or water sculptures provide movement, too."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ASD occurs in about 1.1 percent of children born in the U.S. The condition affects brain development, and usually restricts the ability to modulate along social contexts and adapt to new situations. 

Source: Doody KR, Mertz J. Preferred Play Activities of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Naturalistic Settings. North American Journal of Medicine and Science. 2013