Pretend Play

Children with autism often have difficulty pretending. They don't always use toys the way typical children do - give them a tea set and they may bang the cup on the table, spin the plate, etc. rather than pretend to pour or drink tea. They don't intuitively associate the toy pieces with real-life situations or they don't know what to do with the toys. One thing that we work on in my classroom is learning *how* to play appropriately. Here is one way I address that - by providing visual prompts of what to do with the toys!


Initially a paraprofessional, peer buddy, or myself will work with the student - pointing out different things that the child can do with the toy as well as modeling, prompting and reinforcing appropriate play. In addition to practicing "pretending", there are tons of opportunities for working on communication - expressive and receptive - while playing. We work on identifying items or following directions that involve discrimination using these toys and visuals (tell the student to "brush the dog" - they have to locate the brush, locate the dog, and perform the action). We point to a picture and ask "What can you do?" and they have to describe the picture (i.e. wash dishes). We use the knife to pretend to cut food and ask "What am I doing?" and the student tells us "cutting". Or we put the hat on the baby and ask the student to "show me what I'm doing" and they point to the correct picture on the visual. When the student becomes more proficient at playing, they play independently or with other students and the visuals serve as reminders for them.

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How do I determine what to include on the visual prompt? The best way I've found is to watch typical kids playing with a similar toy and note what kinds of things they do!

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Some of these particular visuals were made with photos found on the internet, others use boardmaker symbols - you could take photos of yourself or someone else playing with the actual toy pieces you have, use drawings, or whatever works for your students!

I store the visual in the tub with the toys so that it's always available at playtime!


16 Responses to "Pretend Play"

A. Alred (visit their site)

Nicole, You are amazing. The dedication you have to these kids is wonderful. Every time I work with you I am in awe. Keep up the good work!

Happy Elf Mom (visit their site)

Yes! And see how everything has its own bucket/place to live? Otherwise all the toys get thrown in together all over the place and it looks like a bad I-Spy. :)

The Bubs (visit their site)

Thank you so much for the pictures and examples. I've been wondering how I was going to tackle the pretend play component that is missing in my room. Such inspiration. Thanks again!

Bruce (visit their site)

Thanks for sharing a great blog
Dealing with Autism

Anonymous (visit their site)

Hi there! I recently found your blog and website and I LOVE it! You haveso many great resources and ideas! You are a wonderful asset to our ASD field with your generosity and sharing. Thank you so much. I have a blog/website myself that focuses on sharing ideas and resources for supporting social langauge skills. I am an elementary school-based SLP who works in the Minneapolis area, mostly with students on the autism spectrum. I would be so appreciative if you would consider checking out my site and linking it to your resource list or blogroll. I do not sell products, or charge anything at all - It is merely a website to share resources with fellow SLPs and autism educators. Thank you so much for all your great resources! Jill Kuzma,

Growing Play (visit their site)

Nice post. I like the pictures to offer some open ended pretend play ideas. If you need further ideas check out some sample pages from our pretend books that offer ideas and suggestions for child to use their play skills. You can check the sample pretend pages and download some free ones at Growing Play.

Jane 35 (visit their site)

Nicole, I love your blog! All the ideas you share are wonderful, thank you so much for posting! I have a daughter with autism and during our wait at a doctor's office she started throwing all the toys I brought her across the room. It has definitely been a struggle to teach her what is appropriate and what is not, so I have been using to learn ways I can improve my daughter's social behavior and skills. I hope you take a look and let me know what you think, but until then keep up the amazing work on this blog!

peterjhudak (visit their site)

I have just started checking out blogs about teaching students on the ASD. I am currently an IA in an adolescents with autism classroom and hopefully will be teaching the class this fall. I have just arrived here and can already tell that this is a valuable resource!

Anonymous (visit their site)

Is there any chance these visuals are posted on your blog or on teacherspayteachers? I would love to use them!

Patricia W (visit their site)

I found this post on pinterest. Love it. Loved it so much jumped to make one for a preschool to use this summer. Thank You.

I posted on my blog and linked to yours!

Tara Marty (visit their site)

I think that this is absolutely awesome! I am currently in college and I am a Special Education major. There is a very good chance that I will go into Autistic Studies for my Masters degree. I have had a soft spot for Autistic kids for a long time and I know that playing is always something that teachers and parents have a hard time working on. I think that this is a very good method to help kids learn to play so they can socialize with their peers. You are doing great work for this field!

Teacher in 10 (visit their site)

Love this visuals to go with the pretend play toys! We have been slowly getting more pretend play items, but I never thought of the visuals as examples - SO doing this!

Chloe K (visit their site)

this is a great idea! i will be trying this with my son who has autism. i wanted to have some sort of structure wherein i can introduce pretend play to him, and this looks like it might just get him interested! thank you for this post! :-)

Chloe K (visit their site)

this is a great idea! i'll be trying this with my preschooler who has autism. i wanted some sort of structure in introducing him to pretend play, and this just might work! thanks for this post!:-)

Anonymous (visit their site)

What do you think about the fact that kids with Autism see the world in a different way and that my encouraging them to play in a way that we consider "normal" could strip them of the unique way they view the world. Why does a child have to play with a Vet Kit like a Vet if they see it in a different way? For example, when i look at a grape vine, i see an ugly grapevine but my son sees the grapevine as a creature from beneath the sea...they way he shows it to me, i can actually see what he's talking about. Sometimes if you can try to see something the way the child sees it, you will understand why they are playing with it in that way.

jenn (visit their site)

where do I find these visual supports? Can you please email me.