Pretend play is an essential part of childhood development. For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), engaging in pretend play can be challenging. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore why some children with autism enjoy pretending to be animals, the benefits it can provide, and tips for supporting this play.

If you’re short on time, here’s the key takeaway: Pretending to be animals allows children with autism to safely explore the social world and build critical developmental skills. With support and guidance, animal roleplay can be a fun, therapeutic activity.

Why Do Some Children with Autism Pretend to Be Animals?

Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) engage in pretend play where they act like different animals. There are several reasons why this type of imaginative play appeals to them.

Difficulty with Social Interaction

Some experts believe that children with ASD act like animals as a way to cope with challenges in social interaction and communication. Pretending to be a dog, cat, or other animal may feel safer and more comfortable than interacting with other children.

It allows them to practice social skills in a less stressful environment.

Children with autism often have difficulty reading social cues, understanding perspectives, and reciprocating conversation. By roleplaying as pets or wildlife, they can interact on more simplistic terms which are easier to comprehend.

Sensory Differences

Many children on the spectrum have unique sensory experiences. Mimicking animals can stimulate or soothe their senses in enjoyable ways. For example, a child may flap his arms to mimic a bird’s wings in order to satisfy a craving for movement.

Or a child may make purring noises to calm herself through soothing, repetitive sound.

Some researchers believe pretending to be animals helps autistic children modulate sensory input and achieve a more balanced state of arousal. The sensory aspects of animal play allow them to self-regulate emotions and behavior.

Special Interests

Children with ASD commonly develop intense, narrow interests in specific topics. For many, animals become all-consuming passions. They may memorize facts, accumulate vast knowledge, and talk incessantly about their animal interests.

Mimicking pets or wildlife stems from this fixation. It allows deep exploration of the animal kingdom through firsthand experience. The child applies knowledge by embodying characteristics of his or her favorite species. This hands-on play fuels the special interest and grants satisfying immersion.

Developmental Benefits of Animal Roleplay

Imagination and Creativity

Pretending to be animals allows children with autism to exercise their imagination and creativity in a fun, engaging way. When a child acts out being a dog, cat, or dinosaur, they are exploring hypothetical scenarios and making up rules of play.

Over time, this type of pretend play builds flexibility, originality, and problem-solving skills. Studies show that children with autism tend to engage in less spontaneous pretend play. Animal roleplay offers a structured way to nurture creative expression.

As creativity blossoms, so does self-confidence.

Social Skills

When children engage in group animal play, they naturally start communicating, cooperating, and learning other critical social skills. Mimicking animal sounds and movements is a playful way to understand nonverbal cues.

Negotiating who will be which animal requires compromise and conversational turn-taking. Since the focus is on assuming a character, anxiety around social interaction can be reduced. Researchers have found animal roleplay can increase social motivation and engagement in children with autism spectrum disorders.

Over time, these positive social experiences transfer into everyday settings.

Emotional Regulation

Letting a child be a silly, playful puppy or a roaring lion enables emotional expression in a whimsical,

  • Physically acting out animal behaviours can be self-soothing
  • Makes emotions less overwhelming or frustrating
  • Being another creature feels safer than expressing feelings directly
  • Studies have shown animal-assisted therapy can reduce anxiety and distress in children with autism. The same psychological benefits apply when kids choose animal identities themselves during play. This can be incredibly healing on a daily basis.

    Communication Skills

    While pretending to be animals, children practice imitation, motor skills, vocabulary building, listening, and responding appropriately. Making a cat \”meow\” or barking loudly like a dog involves calling up descriptors, making connections, and classifying concepts.

    Children may chime in to point out that a horse says \”neigh\” not \”woof\”. This shows they are listening, comprehending, and contributing relevant ideas. Even nonverbal kids can participate by making sounds and gestures. Over time, these small communication gains transfer to real-life conversations.

    Tips for Supporting Animal Pretend Play

    Provide Animal Toys and Costumes

    Having a variety of animal toys, stuffed animals, and costumes can encourage pretend play. Offer realistic looking stuffed animals or toys that make animal sounds. Costumes like animal ears, tails, masks, and gloves let children fully immerse in character.

    Providing open-ended toys and props gives children the freedom to engage creatively. Just be sure to monitor for safety with smaller toys if needed.

    Join In the Play

    Participating in pretend play shows your child you accept their world. Get on their level, maintain a playful demeanor, and resist correcting. Mirror their actions, take turns leading, and build on their ideas. Let them guide you in how to interact with their animal identity.

    This models social skills and builds confidence. Avoid bombarding with questions, just follow their lead using simple language.

    Set Expectations

    Some autistic children engage in pretend play constantly or in socially inappropriate settings. Gently set limits around time and place for animal play. Use a timer or schedule for transitions. Explain when and where animal play is allowed, like outside, playrooms, or their bedroom.

    Validate their love of animals while teaching appropriate times to pretend. With patience, they can learn when it’s ok to be a cat versus when it’s time to be a student.

    Watch for Signs of Distress

    While animal identities can be comforting, watch for signs of stress. Rapid switching between animal characters, agitation, or meltdowns may indicate anxiety. Some experts note animal personas could reflect emotional difficulties or trauma. If pretend play becomes obsessive, talk to your child calmly about their feelings.

    Ensure they know you accept them for who they are. Animal pretense should remain playful. Seek professional help if coping mechanisms cause distress.

    With creativity and compassion, you can embrace your child’s animal pretend play. Simple adjustments make a difference, whether joining imaginative games or gently guiding when acting like a puppy is appropriate.

    Most importantly, ensure your child knows you love them for exactly who they are, with or without a tail.


    Pretending to be animals allows children with autism to act out social roles in a safe, controlled way. With guidance and understanding, parents and therapists can nurture this play to build critical developmental skills.

    Above all, animal roleplay should be treated as a fun form of self-expression to celebrate, not suppress, in children with autism.

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