Engaging Autistic Toddlers

By Amber Keefer
Playing with your autistic toddler is an activity to engage her.
Playing with your autistic toddler is an activity to engage her.

Toddlers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often lack the ability to communicate and engage others in social interactions. Increasing a child’s participation in shared activities like play is key to developing her attention span and social communication skills, notes Autism Speaks. Building on your toddler’s interests and abilities helps to engage her and get her more involved in the world around her.

Communication Supports

Many children with ASD have speech and language delays, which interfere with their social interactions. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) supports teach toddlers with autism and other developmental delays that there are ways other than verbal speech to communicate to others what they need and want, says the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Teaching a child to use aids such as pictures, symbols and electronic devices to communicate his thoughts can help improve his communication skills, thereby increasing social interaction. The use of sign language and writing are additional communication aids your toddler can use to communicate.


Floortime is an engagement technique developed by child psychologist Dr. Stanley Greenspan to help children with ASD communicate and relate to others. When playing with your autistic toddler on the floor, it’s important to follow her lead and engage her in activities that she enjoys. Although floortime play involves physically interacting with your child, it focuses on her emotional development. By concentrating on your child’s special interests through back-and-forth play, you get her attention and strengthen the connection you have with her. Take things slowly, though, as the goal is to encourage her to enjoy interacting with you.


The toys your child with ASD plays with can help engage him more. Many autistic children like toys that light up, make noise or have moving parts. At a time when other toddlers are becoming interested in pretend play which helps develop their social skills, kids with autism usually choose to play alone. But engaging in pretend play with your child using toy dishes, play food, toy phones and stuffed animals encourages interaction and helps build language skills. Talk about what you are playing so that your toddler can see how your words relate to what he is doing.

Imitate Your Child

Follow your child’s lead and copy her movements and sounds. Imitating her may get her to copy what you do. According to the Hanen Centre -- a non-profit organization that addresses the developmental delays in children with autism -- imitation is an approach you can use to get your toddler to connect with you. Imitating what she does gets her to notice you, look at you and then interact with you. If you imitate what your child is doing, you are already doing something she likes which will increase the chances she will respond to you. Because the two of you are doing the same thing, it’s easier for you to keep her attention once you get it.

About the Author

Amber Keefer has more than 25 years of experience working in the fields of human services and health care administration. Writing professionally since 1997, she has written articles covering business and finance, health, fitness, parenting and senior living issues for both print and online publications. Keefer holds a B.A. from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and an M.B.A. in health care management from Baker College.