Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

All children benefit from play, but an autistic or special needs child may find it difficult to follow or participate in traditional games. Here are 10 games for your child to have fun and learn!

By Aarthi Arun  • 16 min read

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

UNICEF says play is the basic right for every child – and, that is no different for a child with special needs. It's through play that your child understands the world around him, learns problem-solving, builds self-esteem and improves his motor and social skills. Not to mention the sheer fun of playing. For a child with special needs, the rigorous standards and the competitive nature of traditional games can be overwhelming. 

So, here are some games and activities for your child to let her hair down and have some serious fun.

Simple games and activities for children with special needs

The games listed here are suitable for all children irrespective of their physical or psychological challenges. These games are especially suitable for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), learning disabilities, speech and language delays, Down syndrome, physical disabilities and cerebral palsy. 

Fun indoor activities for autistic children

1. Match the cards

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: 3 to 5 years

Benefits: Memory, concentration and social skills

Suitable for: Speech and Language Delay, Learning Disability

Memory matching cards are easily available in the market. You can play this simple game by arranging pairs of matching cards face down in random order. You and your child can take turns in flipping the cards. You need to flip twice, and if you get a matching pair, you can take the cards. If not, you continue playing until all the cards are matched.

2. Make some art

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: 3 to 5 years

Benefits: Motor, coordination, self-confidence and creativity

Suitable for: Autism Spectrum Disorders, Learning Disability, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy

Can there be anything better to boost your child's self-confidence than creating something on her own? Painting with cut vegetables and fruits are easy, and soon, your child will be beaming at the masterpiece she has created.

3. Build structures

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Ages: 3 to 5 years, 6 to 9 years

Benefits: Creativity, problem-solving, social skills

Suitable for: Autism Spectrum Disorders, Learning Disability

Blocks are a staple in every child's toy caddy, so dump them out and start playing. In a study by the University of Rochester Medical Center, children with Autism Spectrum Disorders were found to use their creativity more after playing with interlocking blocks. Autistic children follow a strict routine and find it difficult to break from their repetitive behaviour. By building different structures, you child can venture into trying new things and develop creativity. You can start by asking your child to copy a structure first. Then, slowly encourage him to build structures on his own.

4. Dance up to a tune

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Ages: 3 to 5 years, 6 to 9 years

Benefits: Confidence, spatial awareness, motor and social skills

Suitable for: Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Physical disability, Cerebral Palsy, Learning Disability

Dancing is great for self-expression and for keeping your child's body in shape. And all that tapping, stomping and twirling are so much fun. Even for children who are wheelchair bound, dancing can help in flexibility and improve upper body strength. When you incorporate music into it, your child's brain gets a boost of endorphins, the feel-good hormones, which will relax her. Also, by involving in a dance session with friends and family, your child can hone her social skills.

5. Treasure hunt

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Ages: 3 to 5 years, 6 to 9 years

Benefits: Improves observation skills

Hide your child’s favourite toys or items in places where it is safe for him to access. You can give him either verbal clues or visual clues such as a drawing on a piece of paper. Don’t forget to treat him with his favourite cookies once he is able to find the hidden object. This fun indoor activity will help to develop your child’s focus and concentration, and also keep him engaged while indoors.

6. Roll a dice

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: 6 to 9 years

Benefits: Self-confidence and social skills

Suitable for: Autism Spectrum Disorders, Speech and Language Delay

Board games are powerful tools for family bonding and learning social skills like sharing and taking turns. Choose a game of your child's liking and remember to tweak the rules to suit him – the aim is to let him have fun.

7. Go tech

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: 6 to 9 years

Benefits: Self-confidence, creativity, problem-solving, independence

Suitable for: Visual and Hearing impairment, Speech and Language Delay

Technology activities enable a child with special needs to feel accomplished and empowered. There are many games online and apps for your child to try and learn better about the world around him.

Fun outdoor activities for autistic children

1. Playing with bubbles

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: 3 to 5 years

Benefits: Motor, coordination and social skills

Bubble play can be a fun ASD-friendly activity for your child. One of the main benefits of bubble play is that it encourages parent-child interaction. Since your child needs your support in blowing the bubbles, he will make more eye-to-eye contact with you or try to communicate verbally using a sound or a word. This activity is also good for motor development as your child will run around quite a bit trying to catch and burst the bubbles.

2. Throw a ball

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Ages: 3 to 5 years, 6 to 9 years

Benefits: Motor, coordination, self-confidence and social skills

Suitable for: Autism Spectrum Disorders, Cerebral Palsy, Learning Disability

Physical play can enhance your child's awareness of his body and build endurance. More than that, participating in a sports activity can do a lot to your child's psyche. Line up some plastic glasses and play a bowling game. According to your child's abilities, you can also consider including rules or involve him in a more formal game.

3. Splash in the water

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Ages: 3 to 5 years, 6 to 9 years

Benefits: Motor, coordination and social skills

Suitable for: Autism Spectrum Disorders

Water is therapeutic. Playing in water can calm and soothe your child's nerves. For a younger child, add some bath toys to an inflatable pool and let her have fun. Make sure an adult is supervising when the child is in the water. An older child can have fun outdoors with a garden hose or sprinkler.

4. Hide and seek

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Ages: 3 to 5 years, 6 to 9 years

Benefits: Motor, coordination and social skills

Playing a game of hide and seek is a great way to help your autistic child interact and socialize with her siblings or other children. As much as possible, play the game in an enclosed area and ensure supervision of your child the whole time. Use a bit of role play to make your child understand the game and show her some safe places to hide. This game will help your child develop important social and analytical skills which are useful later in life.

Sensory activities for kids with autism

1. Create a sensory tub

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: 3 to 5 years

Benefits: Motor, coordination and problem solving

Suitable for: Autism Spectrum Disorders, Speech and Language Delay.

Processing sensory information can be a challenge for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders or other developmental delays. A sensory bin can come in handy to integrate your child's senses and improve his attention. Take a big, shallow tub and add household items like rice, lentils or flour. You can also add food colour to make it interesting. Let your child scoop, pour, measure, etc., and have a blast.

2. Sorting with snacks

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: 3 to 5 years

Benefits: Motor, coordination and problem solving

Give your child a plate with a variety of snacks which are different in shape, colour and texture. Ask your child to sort the snacks based on these characteristics. You can also use this sensory activity to teach basic maths skills such as addition and subtraction. Reward your child if he cooperates well with the activity by letting him eat the snack.

3. Colourful ice painting art

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: 3 to 5 years

Benefits: Colour recognition, observation skills

This is a fun and simple sensory activity that you can introduce to your child. Fill an ice tray with acrylic paints and allow it to freeze in the refrigerator. You can take the paints out once frozen and let your child draw beautiful patterns with them on a sheet of paper. The sensory stimulation from using the cold ice paint will surely delight your child.

4. Jewellery with yummy snacks

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Ages: 3 to 5 years, 6 to 9 years

Benefits: Sensorimotor skill development, hand-eye coordination

Making edible jewellery is one fun activity that your child is bound to enjoy. Help your child string items like ring-shaped breakfast cereals, candies, crispies and tiny biscuits to make some stylish and yummy jewellery. Knot both the ends and adorn your child with the necklace before she can start munching on it. Threading small items with holes will help improve your child’s fine motor skills.

5. Create a textured sensory collage

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Ages: 3 to 5 years, 6 to 9 years

Benefits: fine motor skills, coordination, problem solving

Help your child create a sensory collage with items with distinct textures and shapes. These items could include anything from fabric, glitter, paint to even leaves, mud or sand. Give him a sheet of paper or cardboard on which he can stick these items to form a collage. This activity will offer him a tactile and visual experience that will keep him engaged for hours.

6. Make a glitter sensory bottle

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: 6 to 9 years

Benefits: Motor, hand-eye coordination, sensory regulation

Making a glitter sensory bottle can be a fun sensory activity for autistic children. For this activity, you will need a clean empty plastic bottle, glitter and watercolours, and a glue gun. First fill one-quarter of the bottle with soapy water. Then invite your child to add in some glitter and watercolour in the bottle. Then proceed to fill the bottle with warm water and seal the cap tightly with a glue gun. Letting your child play with the sensory bottle can help her stay calm and relaxed. It can also help as a calming tool to manage your child when she is having a meltdown.

7. Sensory play with textured rubbing

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: 6 to 9 years

Benefits: Sensorimotor skill development, hand-eye coordination

Rubbing on a textured surface is a good tactile activity for children on the spectrum. Coin rubbing is one such sensory activity which you can incorporate into your child’s daily routine. You will need some coins, a plain piece of paper and pencil or crayons for this activity. Ask your child to keep the paper on top of the coin and rub the crayon over it. Not only will he enjoy creating colourful patterns, it will also help improve his hand-eye coordination. 

Social skills activities for autistic children

Socializing can be very difficult for children on the autistic spectrum. Here are some social skill activities which will help them interact and communicate with others around them.

1. Put on a show

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: 3 to 5 years

Benefits: Imagination, emotional intelligence and social skills

Suitable for: Autism Spectrum Disorders, Speech and Language Delay

Puppets, soft toys and dolls give an opportunity for your child to understand abstract concepts, involve in imaginative play and practise spontaneity. Play a game where you line up your child's puppets and act out a scene. You can be vivid and expressive and encourage your child to follow suit. This way, your child can learn to identify emotions.

2. Follow the leader

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: Older kids and teenagers

Autistic children often have trouble with routine daily activities. This social skill activity will help your teen perform simple activities such as making her own bed, changing her dress or prepare breakfast. The idea is to break down a task like making the bed into three or four steps. Announce that you are going to ‘make the bed’. Show your child each step carefully and ask her to mimic your steps. With repetition, your child will be able to do this on her own. Follow the same method to teach her to become independent with other routine tasks.

13. Emotion sorting activity

Games And Activities For Children With Special Needs And Autism

Age: Younger kids and teenagers

Kids with autism often struggle to express or identify emotions. Use this simple activity to help them learn what each emotion means. Print some cards with some basic emotions labelled in bold – joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. Now print another set of cards with facial images depicting each of these emotions. Keep the cards with the written emotions face down and ask your child to pick one and match it with the correct face card. Use this activity to help your child associate with each emotion and how to respond correctly to it in a real-life situation.

These games and activities not just help engage your kids but also encourage them to be spontaneous and enjoy themselves. Not to mention that these games are inclusive of special needs and disabled children.

About the author:

Written by Aarthi Arun on 6 June 2018; updated on 18 September 2020

Aarthi Arun is a writer from Chennai, who currently calls Toronto her home. Although she has donned many hats, from a photographer to a librarian to a software engineer, she has learnt the most in the role of a mother. With her 6-year-old son Kathir, she loves going on long walks, building LEGO blocks and reading adventurous stories.

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