Play Strategies to Enhance Language and Communication Skills in Children with ASD

Did you know, play focused activities enhance language and communication development?

Contrary to common belief, children are not born with language and communication skills, but rather have to be discretely taught through exposure, repetition, and imitation. Multiple research studies indicate that the most effective way to enhance expressive and receptive language and communication skills in children is through play. Play focused strategies are very effective to help develop language and communication skills in children with Autism.

The top four ways parents can encourage language & communication using play focused strategies and child-led activities are



Before children can communicate vocally or through their augmentative and alternative (AAC) tools, they first learn to listen, then to imitate gestures, and finally to explore.

Parents are taught to:

Label the activities. During play, parents are taught to label everything their child comes in contact with, including actions performed in play activities. For example, when playing with farm animals, parents may say, “This is a cow. Cow says moo. Open the barn door. Cow goes inside the barn”.

Imitate their child’s actions in play. Parents are taught how to effectively imitate children’s actions in play and before we know it, children begin imitating their parents’ actions as well! Imitation is a very important component for developing language.

Encourage exploration. Parents are taught to give children access to a variety of toys that promote sensory, fine motor, and gross motor development. We also encourage exploration outdoors, on nature walks or at the park. This is a wonderful opportunity to incorporate vocabulary around the five senses as children explore the sounds they hear or the things they smell on their nature walk.



Often times, children diagnosed with Autism can understand language much better than they can express it. We allow children to take leadership in play and comment on what they are doing to build their knowledge of their world.

Parents are taught to:

Introduce verbs. We teach parents how to appropriately use verbs to comment on during a play activity (e.g. “rolling the ball”, “rolling play doh”, “catching the ball”, etc.)

Introduce Adjectives. We teach parents how to appropriately use adjectives to comment on what the play items look like (e.g. “the ball is round,” “the car is red,” “the box is big,” “the bubbles are small”) and ask questions (e.g. “can you get the small ball?”, etc.)

Keep the momentum of learning. We teach parents how to keep the momentum of learning going by using exclamatory words such as “Uh-oh!” if the ball ends up in the bushes, or “Wow!” if the child throws the ball far!



Play items and activities are great motivators that can be used to develop expressive language.

Parents are taught to:

Contrive requests. We teach parents how to effectively contrive opportunities in play to encourage children to use their words to request. One way to do this is to keep play items out of reach, out of sight, or sabotaged (e.g. placing a toy item in a closed container). Another way is to provide choices in play (e.g. “do you want me to roll or throw the ball?”, “do you want the blue playdoh or red playdoh?”, etc.)

Develop syntax and grammar. We teach parents how to use play as an opportunity to develop more complex expressive language skills by asking children to explain the rules of the game, indicate whose turn it is, and explain what is happening in the game (e.g. “I got a red card!”).



We encourage parents to encourage their children to play with their peers and people outside of the “parent zone”, which can include teachers, instructors, family members and family friends, for 2 main reasons:

Children learn best from other children their age. Research indicates that children who have exposure to language spoken by other children their age acquire language skills at a much quicker rate than children who do not have this exposure.

Turn taking and imitation. Play with peers or other adults teaches important turn taking and imitation skills, which are both equally important in language development and social communication.

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