For this San Diego moms column, parents will learn concrete tips on how to truly teach inclusive play.

Photo by Charlein Gracia on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, my son’s classmate taught him how to “play Spiderman.” The conversation began when the classmate told his mother that my son didn’t know how to play the game. In response, the mother told her son she should teach him how to play by showing him what he could do. The classmate went to school the next day and did exactly that during recess.

The response? My son came home excited to show me how he played Spiderman. Little does the classmate know my son is on the spectrum, and has difficulty understanding certain social cues. The classmate’s small act of kindness made all the difference for my son. 

For Autism Awareness Month, I asked experts across the U.S. to give adults detailed information on how to teach inclusive play in a neurodiverse world. What I’ve learned from being the mother of a son on the spectrum is that it takes more than talking about inclusive play or even reading books about it, adults need to give their children very concrete examples of what inclusive play means. 

Matt Beltran, an occupational therapy assistant for 15 years at Sierra School of San Diego, said “play is how all people learn to navigate their environment around them throughout the developmental stages of life.” 

 “These play skills will provide the tools necessary to utilize the sensory system to navigate social, emotional, and motor-based opportunities that are fulfilling and person-centered,” Beltran said. “All children require the same opportunities for play, exploration and social participation. Exposure to diverse interests and approaches help to foster a social acceptance of differences.”

So how do you foster social acceptance and inclusive play? Here’s guidance from the experts: 

Brooke Romley, M.Ed., BCBA, Center Supervisor at Sunny Days Sunshine Center in Vista

  • A child with autism may have difficulty processing long directions, especially in a group of peers. Get down to eye level with them, make sure they are paying attention, and give clear and concise directions. It is also important to phrase directions in a positive way, such as, “I love your voice, but right now it is very loud” instead of telling a child to “be quiet” or “stop talking.”
  • A child with autism may have difficulty advocating for themselves. Teach your child socially appropriate phrases to use with peers. For example, “Can you please stop?” “I don’t like that” or “It is my turn, but you can be next.” 
  • A child with autism may want to be included in their neurotypical friend’s games. Teach your typically developing children to include and incorporate special interests into the games they play. Role play with your children and teach them how to approach, include, and encourage their friends on the spectrum to be part of the group. 

Dr. Shannon Davis PT, DPT, and Owner of Inspiration Physical Therapy Inc.

  • A child with autism may be sensitive to sounds and textures. Therefore, teach your child to discuss a variety of locations, games and activities for playtime. Then encourage the child with autism to choose.  
  • A child with autism might ignore another child speaking to them. Therefore, teach your child about other forms of communication such as waving and a smile to say “hello.”

Kalley Hartman, LMFT, and Clinical Director at Ocean Recovery in Newport Beach 

  • A child with autism may have difficulty with eye contact. Therefore, you can teach your child that they are not being rude if they are not looking into their eyes. Additionally, you can teach your child that it does not mean that the other child is not ignoring them. 
  • A child with autism may highly value structure and routine. Therefore, coordinate with the other child’s parent and ask them if there are any relevant things about that routine that your child should know so as not to intrude upon them.
  • A child with autism may not understand social cues. Therefore, teach your child basic social cues such as facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. You can also encourage them to engage in activities with the other child, but do so in a way that respects their boundaries and feelings.

Jessie L. Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP, and CEO of https://www.pediatrictherapyplayhouse.com/

  • A child with autism may enjoy talking about something they love for long periods of time in great detail. Teach your kids to show them they care by listening and asking questions, just like they would want their friends to do if they were talking about something that was special to them.
  • A child with autism might get overstimulated or overwhelmed when they are around lots of other children. Teach your kids that it’s healthy to step away from a group for some quiet time. It doesn’t mean the child doesn’t enjoy playing with your child, it just means they need a little break to calm down.
  • A child with autism may be sensitive to touch and may not like hugs, tickles, or hand holding. Make sure to ask permission before touching.

Sharyn Kerr, Ph.D., Chief Clinical & Administrative Officer at BlueSprig Pediatrics

  • A child with autism may mimic your child as a peer model. Therefore, you can teach your child how to slow the play activity down and model actions for the child with autism. Often, autistic children can engage in play activities with a great deal of independence if the activity is simply slowed down. For example, if playing Candyland, give everyone plenty of time between players so the next player isn’t moving forward while the child with autism is still maneuvering the board pieces.
  • A child with autism may have fine motor difficulties. Therefore, you can teach your child how to partner with their friend to give them different roles in the play activity. For example, if the child with autism cannot manipulate the pieces in Hi-Ho! Cherry-O, give them the task of spinning the board and have your child move the cherries for them. Simplify the game to make it easier for everyone to participate and enjoy. For example, if the hole in the cornhole board is too small, make one with a bigger hole to ensure greater success for everyone.
  • A child with autism may have auditory sensitivities. Therefore, you can teach your child how to modify the game to reduce the sound. For example, instead of cheering for the winner, wave poms poms. Instead of playing Jenga with wooden blocks, use foam blocks. When playing musical chairs, turn the music down.

Amanda Lee, Director and Cognitive Coach at Brain Balance San Diego

  • A child with autism may have food sensitivities and a leaky-gut that affects behavior and functioning. Therefore, offer your child a low-inflammation diet by reducing gluten, dairy, and refined sugars and a variety of textures from healthy, whole foods instead like fruits, soups, smoothies, and vegetables.
  • A child with autism may be emotionally reactive and have a high fight or flight response. Therefore, teach your child to first recognize where they feel the emotions inside their body and then breathing or calming techniques to regulate. Note: This must be practiced regularly, not just when they are in distress, in order to manage and cope effectively and consistently.

Janis Benton, Visitor Services Supervisor, San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum

  • A child with autism might have a hard time following the rules. Therefore, we want to make sure we ourselves model the type of behavior we are trying to showcase to our friends. When we provide verbal or visual reminders of what that looks like they are more likely to have an easier time following along. An example of this is when we are taking turns on the slide. We can verbally and visually show how we wait patiently for our turn by waiting in a line and saying things like “When this friend is down the slide it will be my turn.”


San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Have a story idea? Email hoaq@timesofsandiego.com and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.