Is your kid lining up toys and repeating actions? Here are four expert-approved ways to support autistic play

GoodToKnow expert panellist Dr Amanda Gummer shares game-changing tips

Young boy lining up toys
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Once you become a parent, watching your child becomes a hobby. Do they need a wee? Are they cold? Are they hungry? And while we know we're not 'supposed to compare' children, it's natural to wonder why your kid might be doing something no other kids their age are.

What if your kid's play patterns seem different? Are they fixated on lining up toys or engaging in repetitive actions? Rest assured, you're not alone in wondering if your kid may be displaying signs of autism. Understanding these behaviours is crucial, not only to support your child but also to reassure you that explanations and strategies are available.

Lining up toys and repeating actions are common manifestations of these differences. While these behaviours might seem puzzling at first, they serve essential functions for autistic children. For instance, lining up toys could give them a sense of order and predictability in a world that might otherwise feel overwhelming. Similarly, repetitive actions can offer comfort and help regulate sensory input.

Worth noting

Remember that every child is unique and lining up toys, or exhibiting any type of repetitive behaviour doesn’t necessarily indicate autism. If you have concerns about your child’s development, there are lots of trusted sources you can reach out to for guidance or support including a wonderful organisation called Families In Focus that exist to offer guidance to parents of SEND children. Additionally, The National Autistic Society or Caudwell Children are a great place to start.

Studies have shown that autistic children often exhibit distinct play behaviours compared to their neurotypical peers. Sensory toys play a crucial role in this process. They are designed to stimulate different senses, providing autistic children with opportunities for exploration and sensory regulation. From textured balls to weighted blankets, sensory toys offer a range of benefits that can help alleviate anxiety and promote calmness.

Embracing your child's play preferences can help create a deeper connection and understanding. Encourage open-ended play experiences that allow for flexibility and creativity while respecting your child's need for structure and routine.

In this article, Dr Amanda Gummer talks about why autistic play is so unique and how understanding autistic children play differently is the first step towards providing meaningful support and creating inclusive environments where every child can thrive.

Understanding why Autistic children play differently

I’m committed to promoting inclusivity and the understanding that all children play differently. It's crucial for parents to understand that autistic play is unique and that the way a child plays can actually serve a really important purpose for their development. Autistic children may engage in a variety of actions, such as lining up toys by colour, shape or size, as a way to find comfort and security in their surroundings. These different behaviours can serve as coping mechanisms for managing sensory sensitivities and helping children navigate their little world, which may otherwise seem overwhelming.

It’s important as parents or carers to support an autistic child’s unique preferences when it comes to play. Below are a few ideas that may help embrace a child’s individuality:

  1. Always embrace your child’s unique style of play
  2. Look to provide different sensory options
  3. Designate a quiet space for play
  4. Cheerlead the little wins

1. Always embrace your child’s unique style of play

Encourage your child as they play, and if this involves repetitive action such as lining toys up in a row, then it’s a completely valid form of play! Understanding that this type of behaviour serves as a purpose for them to allow them to feel comfortable and in control of their environment is very much something to be supported.

2. Look to provide different sensory options

Different toys and activities will serve different sensory needs and interests and so where possible, try and look for toys that provide different textures, colours or sounds. All will provide a rich and diverse sensory experience for your child so have fun experimenting! Toys like squishy playthings, textured balls or musical instruments and light up action figures can all be great at stimulating the senses.

3. Designate a quiet space for play

Where possible it’s worth creating a calm and safe play space in your home. Things that can reduce anxiety and promote relaxation can include soft lighting, calming music or different surfaces. In a busy, family home this can seem challenging, but it could just be a corner of a room designated as an area free from clutter or distraction can be enough. It’s also worth considering using noise-cancelling headphones or sensory-friendly items as weighted blankets or fidget toys to help promote relaxation during play time.

4. Cheerlead the little wins

Don’t forget to celebrate your child’s achievements! Whether this is offering praise when they have mastered a new skill or encouragement as they explore a new toy, cheerleading their accomplishments in play will help build their self-esteem and empower their individuality.

Always remember, every child will learn and explore at their own pace and all are unique. It’s essential that we celebrate the diversity of play experiences available to our children to champion the differences to make children feel valued and accepted.

For more sensory play ideas try these easy-to-make glitter jars. Meanwhile, our tuff tray ideas will keep kids entertained for hours. Baby gyms and play mats are a good place to start sensory activities with babies, and we have the lowdown on the best ones around.

Dr Amanda Gummer
Child development expert

Dr Amanda Gummer has a PhD in Neuropsychology, the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education and more than 20 years’ experience working with children and families. As such, she is renowned as an expert on all aspects of child development, including toys and play. In 2012, she founded The Good Play Guide, an independent, expert accreditation service for children’s products, including toys, apps and more.