Most typical children naturally love to pretend play and intuitively use their imaginations at a relatively early age. We see this in normal development the strongest around 3-6 years of age. A child may pick up a toy car and “pretend” it is driving up and down the furniture; he may joyfully make sounds to indicate the car’s speed and motor. As the child becomes more mature and develops relationships in the world, he might race the car and tell us a story about who is in the car, where they are going and other details. Children learn about their world through play and then are able to develop healthy imaginations.
Children with Autism very often have challenges in developing healthy imaginations as well as engaging in purposeful or imaginative play. This, in addition to communication and socialization is an area that the creative therapies can help with. By engaging the child creatively and meeting them where they are, we can bring out their own interests and help them develop this skill in fun ways.
Puppet making is a great activity that combines art and play together! There are very simple ways to make puppets that can be executed by artists and novices alike. There is even pre-cut fabric or paper “blanks” that can be used as starters from various school supply or art supply vendors. There are a variety of styles such as paper bag puppets, sock puppets, finger puppets, stick puppets or glove puppets to name a few. Here is a link for a simple paper bag puppet in which all you need is a small brown bag, computer printer, scissors and glue: http://www.dltk-kids.com/crafts/teddy/mbearbag.html
There are many different styles and ways to create puppets and it really doesn’t matter which one you choose. The goal is to work together and encourage the child to be creative and imaginative with both the act of making the puppet and then with playing afterwards. A visual reference is always good to have, so making a sample puppet ahead of time might be helpful or having a picture. However, do try to promote creative changes as the child makes their own puppet. Verbal feedback is a good way to support the child’s efforts. Saying, “Oh, I like the way you used blue hair on yours instead of brown, it’s so fun and bright!” As you are creating the puppet with the child there may be opportunities to start “pretending” by making voices or giving the puppet a name.
After the art making, the play can begin. At first, some children on the spectrum may not join in but rather observe the play, or just not be paying attention at all. This is ok; you may have to play for them instead of with them in the beginning. Eventually, they may become curious and try some things with the puppet. Even if it doesn’t seem to make sense, follow their lead and go with it.
At some point, the puppets may be a projection for the child’s feelings and thoughts. Although some children with ASD may not have the verbal skills to express it fully, they may be able to have the puppet make a sound, or do a dance or gesture. The storytelling or the imaginative play can very often reflect some real issues ultimately. So, while having fun and letting the child explore with the puppet, the therapist or parent may be able to pick up on some things that otherwise may have not been noticed. But ultimately, it will be a fun activity that can open up the child’s creativity and help develop imagination and play skills.