Social Play for Kids with Special Needs & Autism

Play is important to all children. No one would disagree wth that statement.

However, I would like to suggest that parents should not show their ignorance and prejedice on a playground or in your social circles. Children with Downs Syndrome and Autism need friends too. In fact, I propose that they make better friends than neurotypical children-especially the ones that are raised in prejedice or that behave like bullies.
However, I can tell you that I have watched hundreds of neurotypical parents pull their children away from neurodivergant children in unstructured play spaces. Then they scold their children for playing with "kids that are not like them".

What motivates a parent, caregiver, or teacher teach such bad manners?

Pull your children away from agressive, prejedice or rude children and bullies. Even then do so with some dignity and tact. If your child enjoys playing with a neurodivergent child, let them be. Give them a chance to become special friends. It is so worth it because of the joy and pride that you feel when you see that special childs face light up when they see your child. And watch the remarkable ways that your childs love makes a difference in a neurodivergent childs happiness.
Your family life will be so enriched by simple including them in your family fun.

Every child needs love from their peers and friends. 

Everyone should have the honor if knowing someone with Down syndrome because they can change a person’s entire outlook on life. If you fill their lives with joy, they will love you back with a unbridled and fervid joyfullness and affection that you have never experienced before. You will feel ever so blessed to have them in your life.

“Life is not a roll of the dice. It is a result of what conscious awareness we find ourselves living out from. We can make a deliberate choice to shift our perception from this atmosphere of sickness and sorrow and live your life from a higher principle.”–Michele Longo-O’Donnell

Give them a Sense of Belonging just like you want for your child:

One of the main things I’ve heard from friends and family members that have children with special needs is how important it is for them to have a sense of normalcy even for their special needs child. I love when I see my kids reach out to kids with disabilities and treat them  like they’re one of the group.

Key points

  • Playing with others helps autistic children learn and practise new social skills and abilities.

  • With support, autistic children can go from playing by themselves to playing cooperatively with others.

  • Help autistic children learn about social play with simple games, practice in turn-taking and sharing, and social rules.

On this page:

Playing with others: why it’s important for autistic children

Autistic children enjoy play and learn through play, just as typically developing children do.

Through playing with others, your child can learn and practise new social skills and abilities. These skills are important for your child’s overall development. They include sharing things, taking turns, communicating with others, imagining what other people are thinking and feeling, and so on.

Playing with others can also lay the foundation for early friendships. And friendships are important for children’s confidence, self-worth and sense of belonging.

Playing with you is key to your child’s development too. When you play with your child, you help your child develop skills, including play skills. And playing with your child is also one of the best ways to tune in to your child and build your relationship.

Stages of social play

The ability to play with others, or social play, develops in stages:

  • playing alone

  • playing alongside others

  • playing and sharing with others

  • playing cooperatively with others.

You can help your autistic child by noticing which stage of social play your child is at and by giving your child opportunities, support and encouragement to progress to the next stage.

While children are developing their ability to play with others, they’re likely to still want to spend time playing by themselves. It’s OK if your child wants to play alone some of the time.

Playing alone

In this stage of social play, children play alone and independently. They don’t try to get close to other children, and they don’t pay attention to what others are doing.

You can encourage autistic child’s solitary play skills by starting with activities that have a clear goal or end point. Keep the play activity short to start with, so your child can finish it quickly and feel successful.

Simple jigsaw puzzles can be good for this stage of play.

Playing alongside others

Children at this stage of play start to play alongside other children. They might use the same toys as the children around them.

You can promote play in this stage by encouraging your autistic child to play at an activity on their own but alongside other children. You can encourage your child to copy the other children’s play while your child is playing on their own.

Playing with toy trains or cars can be good for this stage of play.

Playing and sharing with others

In this stage of play, children interact with other children. They give, take and share play materials.

You can help your autistic child develop their ability to play and share with others by encouraging them to swap things while still playing on their own. For example, if your child is cycling or scooting with other children, you could encourage them to swap bikes, trikes or scooters.

Playing cooperatively with others

Playing cooperatively with others includes playing games with rules, making up rules, and working together on something, like building a cubbyhouse or making a sandcastle.

Many of the social rules of cooperative play can be difficult for autistic children to understand and put into action. You can help your child by using clear instructions to simplify the rules of games. For example, ‘First you hide somewhere in the house. Then Sam counts to 10. Then Sam comes to find you. When Sam finds you, it’s your turn to count while Sam hides’.

You can use autistic children’s thinking and learning strengths when you’re helping them with social play. For example, if your child is a visual learner, you could take pictures of different steps in a game or activity. Or your child might prefer to learn the rules of a game using a social story. Making games more visual can also help too. For example, the person who’s ‘it’ could wear a special hat.

Helping autistic children learn about and enjoy playing with others

Here are some other ideas to get your child interacting and playing with others:

  • Choose simple games like peekaboo, pat-a-cake, ring-o-rosies, snap and memory. They’re all social games that promote sharing and taking turns, but they’re also structured with clear end points.

  • Use playdates or visits with friends or family whose children are around the same age as your child. You could also ask your child’s siblings or cousins to help with showing your child how to play games, take turns and so on.

  • Teach your child how to join in. Again, siblings, cousins and friends might be able to show your child how it’s done. For example, you child could say ‘Hello, can I play with you?’, or ‘Do you want to play with the trains?’

  • If your child finds it hard to join in with others, watch carefully to work out why. Does your child need help with some of their play or other skills? You could speak to your child’s school, preschool or early intervention teacher if you’re not sure.

VIDEO: Social interactions: autistic children

Autistic children: view more videos

In this video, parents of autistic children discuss their children’s social interactions with other children. Autistic children can’t always communicate easily, but they can still have good friends. Parents talk about the empathy and encouragement their children get from playing and interacting with other children.

View video transcript


Information on Autism

About Autism

Autism: what is it?

Autistic children have communication difficulties, narrow interests, repetitive behaviour and sometimes sensory issues. Autism is a brain-based condition.

Causes of autism

There’s no single, known cause of autism. Causes of autism might include genes, brain development, family history and other factors.

Learning and development in autistic children and teenagers

Autistic children develop skills at different rates and in a different order from other children. Focusing on strengths can help autistic children learn.

Thinking and learning strengths in autistic children and pre-teens

Autistic children often have strengths in visual, rule-based and interest-based thinking. You can build children’s skills by working with these strengths.

VIDEO:Autistic children: planning for the future

‘Whatever happiness looks like for him, that’s my happiness.’ Parents share future hopes for their autistic children and talk about planning future care.

VIDEO:Raising autistic children: navigating challenges

In this video, parents describe the challenges of raising autistic children and how they navigate them. They say it helps to keep learning about autism.

VIDEO:Raising autistic children: an emotional journey

Parents describe the emotional journey of raising an autistic child. They sometimes feel denial, guilt and frustration, but also joy, pride and pleasure.

VIDEO:Living with Asperger’s: Ellis’s story

Ellis is 13 and has Asperger’s disorder. In this video, Ellis and his family talk about life with Asperger’s. Ellis is slowly learning social skills.

Conditions that can occur with autism

Certain conditions can occur alongside autism. These are called co-occurring conditions. This A-Z guide outlines the 16 most common co-occurring conditions.

Vaccinations and autism

There’s no scientific evidence to support a link between autism and childhood vaccinations. Research proposing the link has been discredited and retracted.

Autism language on uses identity-first language to talk about autism. This approach recognises that autism is an inherent part of a person’s identity.

Neurodiversity and neurodivergence: a guide for families

Neurodiversity is the idea that there’s natural variation in how brains work. Embracing neurodiversity is good for neurodivergent children and society too.

Autism: assessment & diagnosis


Autism: language development

Autism: physical development

Autism: sexual development

Autism: social & emotional development

Autism: social & emotional development

Recognising, understanding and managing emotions: autistic children and teenagers

Autistic kids and teens might need support to recognise, understand and manage emotions. Everyday learning, emotions cards and thermometer ladders can help.

VIDEO:Emotional development: autistic teenagers

In this video on emotional development in autistic teenagers, parents and experts say autistic teens often struggle with emotions, but therapies can help.

Meltdowns: autistic children and teenagers

Meltdowns happen when autistic kids and teens feel completely overwhelmed. To avoid or get through meltdowns, they need support to manage strong emotions.

Resilience in autistic children and teenagers

A calm environment, positive thinking, problem-solving, and emotional, social and organisational skills can help autistic children and teens with resilience.

Going out independently: autistic children and pre-teens

Learning to go out independently is good for children’s development. With support to build skills, many autistic children can learn to go out independently.

Going out independently: autistic teenagers

With the right supports many autistic teenagers can learn to go out independently. They can build skills and independence through gradual steps and practice.

Self-identity for autistic teenagers

Self-identity can be challenging for autistic teenagers. Try talking about diversity and personal strengths, finding peer groups and thinking about family.

VIDEO:Adolescence and autistic teenagers

In this video, experts and parents talk about the challenges of adolescence for autistic teens. Emotional age can lag behind physical age for these teens.

VIDEO:Preparing for adulthood: autistic teenagers

In this video, parents discuss the transition into adulthood for their autistic teenagers. They say a good support network is important.

Learning about autism

Learning about autism



Communicating & relationships

Communicating & relationships



Health & wellbeing

Health & wellbeing



Education, play & work

Education, play & work

Therapies & services

Therapies & services

Parent guide: therapies

Parent guide: therapies

Children & autism: videos

Children & autism: videos

Teenagers & autism: videos

Teenagers & autism: videos

Suitable for 0-8 years

Play and friendship for children with disability

Key points

  • Play and friendship can help children with disability develop skills, feel good and have fun.

  • To play well with others, children might need to practise skills like listening, sharing, cooperating and taking turns.

  • You can help playdates go well by choosing appropriate activities, setting up play areas, and guiding children through tricky situations.

On this page:

Why friendship and play are good for children with disability

Play is central to learning and development for all children. Play and friendship help children with disability learn skills and abilities, including social-emotional, communication and physical skills.

Playing with others can help children with disability have fun and feel included, supported and cared for. This can be great for their self-esteem.

How children with disability learn and develop through play with others

Social-emotional skills
Play and friendships help your child learn about sharing, being patient, cooperating, solving problems, working out what other children are feeling and making friends with other children.

If your child finds it hard to understand and manage emotions and this affects their ability to play with others, a psychologist can help.

Communication skills
Some children with disability might use speech, signing, gestures or communication devices. By being with other children, children with disability can learn new ways of talking, listening and communicating. For example, your child can hear and see how other children use words and gestures to say what they want. And your child can practise using words and gestures too. And other children can learn how your child communicates, which can help your child communicate with them.

Stronger communication skills will help your child express themselves, regulate their emotions and behaviour, and feel confident. This can help them make friends more easily.

If your child’s disability makes it hard for them to communicate, a speech pathologist might be able to help.

Physical skills
Friendships can encourage your child to join in with fun social physical activities like running, jumping, throwing balls, dancing, climbing or building things. Getting involved in physical play can improve your child’s physical fitness and skills, as well as their confidence, self-esteem and sense of belonging.

If your child has a physical disability that makes it hard to be active, a physiotherapist or occupational therapist can help your child find ways to get involved in movement, games and sports with peers.

Practising play with children with disability

You can help your child practise skills for playing well with others through your everyday play and communication together. This includes skills like sharing, taking turns, listening and being sensitive to other children’s feelings.

You can do this by being a role model. By listening, sharing, compromising, seeing things from other people’s points of view and showing empathy, you show your child positive ways to interact with others. For example, you can say things like, ‘Yes, let’s do it that way’, ‘I would like a turn, please’ or ‘I don’t understand what you mean’.

Playing board games or interactive games is a great way to help your child learn to cooperate, share and take turns. For example, if waiting for a turn is something your child needs to practise, you can remind your child to wait by using a wait card or by just holding up your hand. As your child gets better at waiting for turns, you can cut down on the prompts by using a raised finger instead of a raised hand.

And you can read books with your child on play situations or make social stories or drawings of what might happen in the playground or at child care or preschool. It can also help to talk with your child about how to deal with these situations.

Whenever you see your child sharing, taking turns or playing well in any way, you can give your child praise and encouragement. When you tell your child exactly what you liked, your child is more likely to behave that way again. For example, ‘It was nice that you gave the ball to Evan when it was his turn’.

                           ╰☆☆ I͓̽n͓̽c͓̽r͓̽e͓̽d͓̽i͓̽b͓̽l͓̽e͓̽ H͓̽o͓̽r͓̽i͓̽z͓̽o͓̽n͓̽s͓̽ ☆☆╮

Playing with others: making it easier for children with disability

All children have to learn how to play and get along with others. There are a few things you can do to make playing with others easier for children with disability.

Choosing toys and activities
If you’re having a playdate for your child, you can help things along by choosing toys and activities that children of diverse abilities will enjoy. It’s also a good idea to have some activities that you know your child can do confidently. Children are much more likely to join in when they feel confident.

For younger children, try activities that give them the choice of playing alone, alongside others or together. Some ideas include:

  • materials for painting and drawing

  • books, blocks and construction materials like Duplo or Lego

  • musical instruments

  • props for imaginative or dramatic play

  • outside play.

Setting up a play area
If you’re inviting children to your house to play, setting up a play area for them can help things go well. A spacious area that’s not too crowded works well, as do different spaces and activities so that children can either play together or alone.

Helping out if needed
Sometimes you might need to step in and help your child handle tricky situations. If you can give your child some words that help with understanding feelings, it might help. For example, ‘Sally has taken your toy. It looks like you’re feeling angry. It’s OK to feel angry. Let’s see how we can help’.

You can also teach your child some basic questions and sentences to help with play. For example, ‘I would like to play with that too’, ‘Can we try doing this together?’ or ‘I don’t like it when you do that’.

Mixing and matching
It’s great for all children, including children with disability, to be with older and younger children, children the same age, and children with and without disability. This can give your child the chance to have a variety of play experiences and develop patience, acceptance and an understanding of diversity.

If play doesn’t go to plan

Things probably won’t always go according to plan. We don’t make friends with everyone we meet or get along with everyone we know. It’s normal to worry if your child is ignored or left out or finds it hard to play with others.

Try to make playing with other children as fun, calm and enjoyable as possible.

Note that playing with other children takes physical and emotional energy, so your child might need to spend time alone after a big play session. As your child gets better at playing with other children over time, they’ll naturally gain confidence and independence.

If you’re worried that your child might be being bullied, read our tips on how to spot the signs of bullying and what you can do about it.

Understanding play

The way your child plays and makes friends will change through early childhood. Children learn different things from play at different ages and stages, including creativity, flexibility and problem-solving. And the more chances your child has to play, the more your child can learn about how to play.

Solitary play is when children play by themselves and don’t pay attention to what others are doing. This stage typically goes up to 15-17 months. It can last longer for children with disability.

Parallel play is when children play alongside each other and might use the same or similar toys as those around them. This stage typically starts at 18-24 months, but it can be later for children with disability.

Associative play is when children make and share things, give each other things, or join in with what other children are doing. This typically starts around 3 years, but it might be later for children with disability.

Cooperative play is when children join together to do activities and work together to finish something. It might also be making up rules or playing games with rules. This typically starts happening at 3-4 years, but it might be later for children with disability.

Children with disability might move through these stages more slowly than typically developing children. This can be because their development is delayed or because they haven’t had the same play opportunities as typically developing children. For example, a child with a significant motor disability might find it physically difficult to play alongside other children, give things to other children and join in with activities

Suitable for 0-18 years

                          ╰☆☆ I͓̽n͓̽c͓̽r͓̽e͓̽d͓̽i͓̽b͓̽l͓̽e͓̽ H͓̽o͓̽r͓̽i͓̽z͓̽o͓̽n͓̽s͓̽ ☆☆╮

Neurodiversity and neurodivergence: a guide for families

Key points

  • Neurodiversity is the idea that there’s natural variation in how people’s brains work.

  • When we embrace neurodiversity, we accept and celebrate neurodivergent children.

  • Embracing neurodiversity is good for neurodivergent children and good for society.

  • There are many ways for families, communities and schools to embrace neurodiversity.

On this page:

Neurodiversity, neurodivergence and children

Neurodiversity is the idea that there’s natural variation in how people’s brains work and how people experience, understand and interact with the world. This means there are natural differences in the way people learn and communicate.

Most children’s brains develop in ways that are seen as typical for their age and stage. These children can be described as neurotypical.

About 1 in 5-6 children have variations in their brain development. These variations include those seen in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)autism and dyslexia. These children can be described as neurodivergent.

Embracing neurodiversity

Embracing neurodiversity is about accepting, including, celebrating and supporting neurodivergent children. Their differences are part of natural variation and don’t need to be treated or changed.

Embracing neurodiversity involves:

  • acknowledging that neurodivergent children might do things differently from neurotypical children

  • adjusting tasks and activities so that neurodivergent children can fully participate

  • making the most of neurodivergent children’s skills, especially the skills they’re proud of

  • helping neurodivergent children develop ways of managing everyday tasks and activities that feel natural to them

  • not expecting neurodivergent children to change behaviour like stimming, which doesn’t interfere with their everyday activities

  • making sure that schools, sports clubs, social groups and community organisations include and support neurodivergent children.

Neurodivergent children can be disabled by noise, light and other things in the environment. People's expectations can be disabling too. But it’s not up to neurodivergent children to change. Rather, environments and expectations need to change to better include and embrace neurodivergent children’s differences.

Why it’s important to embrace neurodiversity

When families and communities embrace neurodiversity, it’s good for neurodivergent children’s mental health, wellbeing, sense of self and identity.

Embracing neurodiversity takes away the pressure for neurodivergent children to behave in neurotypical ways, hide behaviour like stimming, mask or hide who they are, or cope with sensory overstimulation. This kind of pressure can be physically and mentally exhausting. And it can make it hard for children to focus on schoolwork and take part in social activities.

Embracing neurodiversity is also good for society. Just like the planet needs a diversity of plants and animals to survive, society needs neurodiversity to thrive. Neurodivergent people bring many strengths to society. These include strengths in creative, innovative and analytical thinking and expertise in areas of special interest.

How to embrace neurodiversity in family life

You can embrace neurodiversity as part of everyday family life. You don’t have to be neurodivergent yourselves. Here are some ideas:

  • Talk with your children about neurodiversity, neurodivergence and acceptance. For example, you could say, ‘Some people’s brains work differently from other people’s. This means they learn and make friends differently too’.

  • Use books to learn and talk about neurodiversity and neurodivergence. For younger children, try Some brains by Nelly Thomas, The brain forest by Sandhya Menon or Just right for you by Melanie Heyworth. For older children, try The spectrum girl’s survival toolkit by Siena Castellon or The autism and neurodiversity self advocacy handbook by Barb Cook and Yenn Purkis.

  • Find meaningful ways to include neurodivergent children in your social activities. For example, if you’re inviting an autistic child to a birthday party, you could ask the parents how you can accommodate their child’s needs. Or you could include some ‘What to expect’ information with the invitation.

  • Look for appropriate ways for your child to communicate with neurodivergent friends. For example, you could help your child use pictures and drawing to communicate with a friend who doesn’t use words.

How to embrace neurodiversity in the community

Here are some ideas for embracing neurodiversity in the community:

  • Be aware of the language you use. It’s OK to ask if you’re not sure. For example, ‘Do you prefer ‘autistic child’ or ‘child with autism’?’

  • Challenge unhelpful attitudes. For example, you could speak up if you hear someone criticising a parent whose child is having a meltdown in the park.

  • Avoid assumptions. For example, there could be many reasons why a child is eating only packaged snacks at a picnic or wearing headphones at the supermarket.

  • Look for ways to make your community more inclusive. For example, you could be part of a petition encouraging the local supermarket to opt into one ‘quiet hour’ a week, when lights are dimmed and no music is played.

  • Talk respectfully about neurodiversity and neurodivergence. You probably know people who are neurodivergent, even if they haven’t told you.

How schools can embrace neurodiversity

Schools can adjust things so that neurodivergent children can participate fully in learning and socialising at school. For example, you might notice that your child’s school has made changes like these:

  • Changes to the environment for children with sensory sensitivities or high levels of anxiety – for example, perhaps the school uses quiet spaces, adjusts lighting, allows children to use sensory items like squishy balls in class, or allows variations to the uniform.

  • Use of diverse teaching methods to suit diverse learning styles or needs – for example, perhaps the school lets some children create video presentations instead of doing class presentations, or participate in sports day by planning rather than competing. Perhaps teachers give both written and verbal instructions.

  • Support for all children to include neurodivergent children in interactions and play – for example, perhaps the school includes lessons on neurodiversity in citizenship lessons or has games clubs for all children interested in a game like chess.

When children understand more about how neurodivergent children communicate and play, it can encourage all children to interact respectfully and on equal terms. This helps to get rid of the expectation that neurodivergent children should change.

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Play and friendship for children with disability

Healthy school friendships: autistic children and teenagers

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