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.
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!
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!