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Play with purpose is essential for children with autism

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  • Category Advice Column, Health, Lifestyle, Parenting, Toy Box

Play is a powerful tool autistic children need to boost their development and an essential way for them to learn a range of skills.

This according to Keri Delport, director of Autism Western Cape – an organisation committed to empowering individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and educating their families and communities on the disorder. Autism is a neuro-development condition that impacts the way the brain works and processes information. In South Africa more than seven thousand children are born with autism every year; this means that 160 autistic children are born in the country every week, which is roughly 23 per day.

“Autistics are incredible people who open doors for other people in different ways. They are extremely honest and tend to live in the moment. They focus really well when things interest them and have terrific memories once they understand a concept. It’s for this reason that play is so important. It provides the level of physical and psychological support the child needs and helps to develop language, creativity and problem-solving skills,” she says.

Delport explains that engaging in play is the start of an important cycle for autistics, forms an integral part of teaching them how to interact with other children and is “absolutely necessary” to develop their social skills and encourage independence.

Play types:

  • Explanatory play – allows children to explore the toy in its entirety and helps him/her learn  more about the world through shape, colour and texture
  • Functional play – allows children to use the toy the way it’s designed to be used and helps to develop social skills.
  • Sensory play – an invaluable form of play, provides children with a level of input to support their sensory modulation needs


Toy types:

  • Teddy bears and mouthing blocks
  • Puzzles and Lego
  • Play dough and kinetic sand

Delport says parents play a crucial role in ensuring that autistic children “play with purpose” and advise that parents introduce children to toys/games that don’t overwhelm or pressurise them in order to boost their self-confidence. “After all, as Jean Piaget said: ‘play is the work of childhood’,” she says.

And to encourage a culture of play with autistics and motivate parents to allow their autistic children to engage in play, Delport says Autism Western Cape recently partnered with toy retailer Toy Kingdom to host the first ever Autism Hour in several stores around the country. During this hour, specially trained staff was at-hand to assist and interact with autistic children; and carried-out sensory demonstrations that focussed on toys that stimulate senses. Since this disorder is characterised by several marked differences including social interaction and sensory activities, stores dimmed the lights and turned-down the music to create a safe space and ensure autistics feel comfortable and welcome.

“This is a pioneering initiative in South Africa and provided autistic children the space they needed to play and simply be themselves. It also served as a space where parents could come together, support each other and feel less judged. We hope to see more of these initiatives rolled-out in the country in due course, they are extremely valuable,” Delport says.

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