How play can help your autistic child during lockdown

While lockdown is difficult enough for all of us, spare a thought for autistic children, who are struggling to come to terms with their routines being thrown out of whack, as well as the loss of any of their regular support and therapies.

Appearing on video series Up Close And Socially Distant, Dr Ruth Glynne-Owen, the CEO and founder of the Blue Sky Autism Project, shared her thoughts on how the pandemic has affected autistic children. The charity helps children in London and Scotland to learn through play.

“A lot of the children that we work with [...] enjoy going outside,” she told host Kate Thornton. “They maybe have specific routines. They enjoy going out to the park, so I think it's limited maybe some of the routines that they would be quite used to.”

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She continued: “That's been frustrating and quite upsetting, especially for very young children, because they don't understand why this is happening. I think it's been quite confusing for the children not really understanding what's happening, why they can't see the things they usually do, and why they can't maybe see their friends.”

During lockdown, Blue Sky Autism Project are continuing to support children via video calls and by training parents in Pivotal Response Therapy (PRT), a naturalistic therapy where children develop their communication skills by taking charge of their playtime.

Here, Dr Ruth shares her advice on how using their techniques can help children through these tough times.

Play in a purposeful way

“We train and coach parents to learn how to play in a purposeful way with their children and really look at trying to develop speech, and social interaction, and play skills, and trying to empower the parents,” said Dr Ruth.

Her advice is to interact and be as crazy as you can be – it’s about having fun and using play as way of helping them develop. For example, play can be a powerful tool in getting non-communicative children to use their voice.

Dr Ruth explains: “We look at opportunities for the child to use their voice – just the sound, initially – to try and indicate to their parent or their carer that they want something to happen.

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“It might be a tickle game. Or we might be blowing balloons or bubbles. And we add the word into the activity very simply, just using a keyword – bubbles, balloon, tickle... whatever game we're playing.”

Dr Ruth says it’s a technique that has a powerful response.

“Nearly every child we've worked with in the last 10 years has learned to speak,” she told Kate. “Maybe not everybody gets to conversation level, but very, very powerful to be able to tell people what you want to do and what you don't want to do in a really effective way.”

Using everyday things such as cardboard boxes is great for creative play
Using everyday things such as cardboard boxes is great for creative play

Be inventive

You don’t need lots of specialist equipment or toys to ensure your child is learning through play – just use what you have in the house.

Dr Ruth said: “You can have fun with a bed sheet: swing your child on a bed sheet, playing peekaboo behind the chair, posting things into a cardboard box, and spinning them around in a washing basket. Really, anything goes. It's whatever the child enjoys.”

Give children a choice

Rather than dictating what goes on every day, let your child lead with their choice of activity. Not only will it make them happier, but it’s a chance to sneak in a bit of education if you’re worried about them missing out on school.

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“What we advocate is all about child choice,” explained Dr Ruth. “If a child has chosen the activity that they want to do, then you're going to have a lot more opportunities to sneak in a bit of teaching, maybe some opportunities for communication.”

She continued: “Deep down, everyone just wants to be having fun with their child. Just get down to their level. Have a look at what they're enjoying doing and try and create opportunities to play with them with those activities.”

Don’t worry about home schooling

We can all be worried about how the lack of formal education is affecting our child’s progress during lockdown and that’s even more so with young children with autism, but Dr Ruth says now is not the time to worry about this and instead concentrate on having fun.

“I think it's about having fun,” she said. “It's about looking at what they're interested in, and trying to get into their play, and get into the things that motivate them, and having fun together.

“If you can create opportunities to learn within that type of activity and that type of situation, then everybody's going to win!”

Playing with your kids is a great way to keep them entertained and education
Playing with your kids is a great way to keep them entertained and education

Enjoy the extra time you have with your children

Dr Ruth says that these unsettled times, while it can negatively affect families with autistic children in them, have also been a boost to some. Now that parents are having more time at home with their children, they’re able to work with them more.

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She told Kate: “There’s actually been quite a lot of positive stories from the families that we work with in terms of their child's become toilet trained because they've had time to commit to that over the last few weeks.

“They've been spending more time with their child. They're home working. They're feeling more empowered. They're feeling more in charge of their child's therapy program and activities, so there might be some families that don't actually need to come back to our centres.”

Visit the Blue Sky Autism Project website at

Up Close And Socially Distant is hosted by Kate Thornton and features weekly video catch-ups with people who are all doing whatever they can, in whatever unique and special way they can, to help those around them get through lockdown.

This week as well as speaking to Dr Ruth Glynne-Owen, Kate chats to Denise Van Outen about volunteering to sew scrubs for frontline NHS staff and to Barrie Knight about his YouTube show, ‘Big Knight In’, which is raising money so he can buy and deliver food parcels to those most in need.