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Using Role-playing to help your Autistic child’s development

Using Role-playing to help your Autistic child’s development

Working with children with Autism presents unique challenges. Many parents feel frustrated as they don’t know how to improve their child’s behavior. Using Role-plays is a helpful Autism strategies for parents helps a child with Autism improve their behavior and better function in society.

What is a role-play?

Many people dread role-playing because it can be uncomfortable, but you would never mock a concert pianist or professional basketball player for practicing before attending their performance or game. Role-playing, or practicing, behavioral skills is the best way for our kids’ brains to fully learn and then incorporate what we are teaching them. Acting out future situations enhances the learning process. This is especially true for Autistic children who have a difficult time adapting to different social situations or who have low verbal skills. Showing rather than explaining can clarify questions that don’t arise through talking.

Learn how to Role-play by watching our Role-playing skills video.


Show how to role-play first

Start by showing your child first how to use the skill in a common situation. As you complete each behavior you’d like them to model, use language appropriate to their development to explain what and why are you are acting this way. Communication skills vary greatly with Autistic children, and in some cases you may only be able to use visual cues and actions to assist with role-playing. Once they show understanding of the skill then have them practice on their own, giving praise and feedback in between each role-play. Practice AT LEAST 3 times to ensure that they fully understand how to implement the skill and to give the brain enough time to establish new pathways.

Role play topics for children

Use topics they’re interested in. Children with Autism become fixated on their interests and often have a hard time focusing if role-playing is not related to their interests. For example, I worked with an Autistic boy in his home and he loved building with Bionicle Legos. I would start role-playing by using the Bioncles or by giving him instructions to complete with the Bioncles. Then we would use a common problem situation, such as when his mom would ask him to stop playing with the Bioncles and come eat dinner. Once he had mastered the skill, only then would I generalize the skill to other situations not involving his interests.

Also use your child’s interests to establish rewards for role-playing with you. It’s alright to provide incentives when first introducing role-play so they are more motivated to participate. Just as role-playing can be uncomfortable for adults, it is also uncomfortable for children at the beginning. But as they participate in role-playing more frequently, have success, and occasionally earn rewards, role-playing will be a positive experience.

Role-play spontaneously

When first learning a skill, it’s best to find a neutral time to role-play and to practice the skill several times. But after the initial role-playing, it will still take some time for the skill to be integrated into everyday use. To help with this integration begin role-playing spontaneously throughout the day so they can use the skill at unexpected times. Also make sure to role-play before potential difficult situations occur. For example, if your child struggles making transitions, role-play how to remain calm 10 minutes before the transition, setting them up for success when the actual transition occurs.

During the spontaneous role-plays continue to establish a neutral time to practice. If your child is not willing to practice or you find yourself impatient with their behavior, take a break and come back to role-playing. You never want role-playing to be negative. It’s better to come back to role-playing at a later time when you are both calm then to force your child to role-play and possibly hurt their willingness to participate in the future.

Practice the parenting skills on your own

One of the best ways to prepare yourself to respond appropriately to your child’s rigid adherence to routine or tantrums that often accompany Autism is through role-playing your own parenting skills. Solicit your spouse, another adult, or sometimes even a child, to help you practice the skills you are learning. Just as your child needs to prepare for difficult situations, you also need to rewire your brain to respond in a different way. In the moment when emotions are high we tend to act the same way we always have, even if that’s not a positive response. But if we spend the time practicing we will be prepared to act the way we want to when those situations arise again. It also provides a good example for your child. When they see you practicing the skills you’re learning, they’ll be more willing to practice theirs.

The importance of play in child development

Autistic children especially need role-play for their development. Start incorporating role-playing in your home today. Set small goals for how many times you will practice with your child. Once you and your child become comfortable with role-playing you will be surprised how many situations arise where you use role-play to set your child up for success. Role-playing will become a normal part of your everyday life.