Playing with Toys

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Playing with Toys

“Imitate and Expand”

Marcus is 2 ½ years old. I first met Marcus when he was two and have been working to help his grandmother and his parents to best engage and support him. I make sure to use strategies that are both simple and fun.

Autism is a very complex set of disorders, but our expanding knowledge of early brain development has led us to create powerful strategies that can be simplified for parents. I like to keep in mind that being a parent comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility.  When a child has special needs, those responsibilities are magnified by the additional charge of engaging their child in therapeutic activities at home to maximize progress.  I don’t want to add additional stress by teaching parents strategies that are hard to understand or difficult to fit into their typical routine. That’s what makes the “Imitate and Expand” strategy such a good one!


In the video, you see me teaching Marcus’ grandmother, Renee, how to imitate her grandson.  Imitation allowed Renee to tune into Marcus’s interests and join in his play. I like to say that she was “playing at his level” by only doing the same actions as Marcus. After guiding her to sit face to face with him, rather than putting him on her lap, and encouraging her to join in the play by doing what he was doing with the toy, the play activity took on a different feeling.  Renee was now playing with Marcus as a play partner.

By playing in this way, a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) learns to let another person into his play space, and increases his tolerance for allowing other people to touch his toys. We’ve found that using the Imitate & Expand strategy can also help young children with ASD begin to make more eye contact, share smiles with others, and interact by giving or sharing toys.  When you’re playing in this manner, it also sets the stage for teaching your child the language that is relevant to the activity.  I guided Renee to choose a group of words for each toy that I called the “toy vocabulary.”  I wanted her to pick out the most important words for Marcus to learn while playing with the toy. There are really no right or wrong words to choose.  As long as they are relevant to the activity, I prefer to choose words that name the action and the object such as “go car!”

The final step in the Imitate and Expand strategy is expanding.  Once you are tuned into your child’s interests and playing alongside him in the manner that he is playing, you can expand your play. This allows you to teach your child to do something new. I guided Renee to find one simple thing to do with the toy that was different from what Marcus was already doing.  She did not need to tell him what to do or make him take the new step.  All she needed to do was demonstrate the new action.  Since they were already tuned into each other with the toy, he is more apt to imitate her new action than he would have been if she started out teaching this action or directed him to do the new action before he was ready.  You can keep this strategy going as long as your child is playing with toys.  If he moves on to a different toy, follow his lead and continue to imitate, then expand.  You’ll become his play partner and his teacher -all in one!

Jenny Sharpless

Speech- Language Pathologist

The Center for Autism & Related Disorders, Kennedy Krieger Institute

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