Planning Suitable Activities for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Activity time can serve as a bridge between a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and his or her environment, as well as the people in it. However, it is important to choose the right activities – ones that support the child in learning and improving social skills. Because each child is unique, it is a good idea to have a variety of ideas on hand to see what works and what doesn’t, and to maintain focus.

When planning activities, first ask yourself:

  • What are the child’s likes and dislikes?
  • What makes your child tick or motivates him or her?
  • What are your goals for the child with this activity?
  • What are your child’s challenges?

The other influential component is, of course, the child’s age. With a little thought, you can create engaging, age-appropriate activity sessions that are fun, educational, and helpful to your child. Let’s take a look at some expert-recommended activities within the Autism community that are suitable for different age groups.

Children from Birth to Three Years

Most children with moderate or severe autism receive a diagnosis before the age of three[1], and even those with symptoms of mild autism can benefit from appropriate activities. Some examples:

  • Box o’ beans: Fill a large plastic tub with sensory beads or dried beans from the grocery store. Place small toys throughout, and have the child place his or her hands in the box to pull out desired objects. This will help with sensory issues surrounding texture and touch.
  • Scented bubbles: Blowing bubbles can be a fun sensory experience, and it can also work on oral motor skills. What’s more, pointing to the bubbles and exaggerating your own reaction can help work on joint attention,a very important but challenging area for many children with ASD.
  • Finger painting: Messy but fun, finger painting can help children learn about colors, and it provides an opportunity to discover new textures through touch.
  • Songs and poems: Children often like the rhyming nature of poems or the repetition of verses in a song. You can make up songs to teach children how to dress or feed themselves, or use a favorite song as a reward after a child does a less desirable activity.

Preschoolers and Kindergartners

During the preschool years, many children with ASD have their first exposure to peers, and the changing environment and routine can be challenging. Consider the following:

  • Through the Tunnel– Show your child how to drive a toy car around on the floor by first demonstrating the action for him. Make a tunnel out of your arms and encourage him/her to drive the toy car underneath and through the tunnel.
  • Color Sorting– Purchase colored buckets or place a piece of colored tape on baskets and help your child to sort same colored toys and crayons into the corresponding colored basket or bucket.
  • Building Blocks– Take turns building a tower as high as you can with plastic blocks or Legos. This encourages turn taking, and it can help your child learn colors and matching.
  • Play Pretend – Delayed, unusual, or absent pretend play skills are especially common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Working on these skills during playtime can expand a child’s ability to interact with others.

Grade School Children

At the elementary school level, many children with autism are beginning to stand out more from their peers, and they may be experiencing bullying and social isolation.  Social activities can help build the skills they need to form relationships. In addition, as peers’ motor skills become more advanced, some children may find they are falling behind. Gross motor activities can help them to catch up with their friends. Some activity ideas:

  • I spy:This game helps a child focus on a description or follow a point to find an object. Describe the object in as much detail as you can, then have the child point to it in the room.
  • Draw my face:Have a child draw a large circle on a piece of paper. You can demonstrate a variety of emotions through your facial expressions. Have the child draw the face you are making and assist her in labeling the emotions, like happy, sad, or angry.
  • Dance party:Put on your favorite music and have an impromptu dance party. This is a great way for children to learn about rhythm, counting, and develop physical coordination. Even a few minutes a day shakes the excess energy out and everyone can have a little silly fun.
  • Puppet show:Make sock puppets or use the child’s dolls and come up with a fun theme to act out. By having a puppet show, you can teach emotions and social skills through role-play. This is a great activity to do before a major life event such as moving or starting school.


During the teen years, kids on the spectrum commonly struggle with communication, social skills, and the executive function or planning aspects of daily life. Speech and language related activities can help strengthen the teen’s ability to communicate with peers and adults, and sequencing activities help teens manage their daily schedules at home and school. Some helpful ideas:

  • Blindfolded obstacle course– Set up an obstacle course that will require kids to move around, over, and under various objects. Have teens work in pairs, with one wearing a blindfold. The other teen must give directions to the blindfolded teen to help him get through the obstacle course.
  • Movie listening quiz– It can be difficult for teens with ASD to tune in to the feelings and words of others, especially when there are a lot of distractions. Play a scene from a movie, then give them a quiz to see how much of the interaction they were able to pick up. Ask questions about how the characters were feeling, what their facial expressions were, and how they expressed themselves.
  • Improvisational skits– Have teens work in groups and give them a prop, such as a steering wheel, a clipboard, or a pair of pants. The group must work together to create an improvisational skit surrounding the object, changing the scene as they go.

No matter what the child’s age may be, you can plan beneficial activities that are both helpful and a lot of fun. Remember to incorporate patience, as it may take some time to identify what works best for each individual child. Also take into consideration the child’s specific interests, and you will be able to organize the ideal activity time.


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