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Play Therapy as a Treatment for Autism


After the exhausting process of diagnosing a child with autism, many parents are overwhelmed by the cost and complexity of private therapy and treatment. Autism, also known as Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), or Asperger’s syndrome,  can be difficult to identify and treat, even for an experienced physician. If parents involve themselves more directly in their child’s therapy, it can be easier and more affordable, and more enjoyable for everyone.

Autism disorders tend to affect three specific areas of a child’s life: social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and a child’s behaviors and interests. Each child usually will show their own specific pattern of autism, which can vary greatly in the types and magnitude of symptoms they exhibit.

Children with autism will also have a need for certain things to be done in a highly specific manner. These behaviors are highly repetitive, compulsive, and rigid, similar to adults with OCD. These compulsive and repetitive behaviors may be used by the autistic child to help keep them calm, or to satisfy a specific stimulatory need.

Autism is mainly a social communication disorder. Autistic Children find it extremely difficult to connect with others, especially their peers, in the same ways other children do. For instance, instead of playing with toys with others in symbolic or other imaginative ways, they may get uncontrollably stuck on repetitively using the toy in a solitary and sometimes destructive manner. They can become entirely self-absorbed by these compulsions, which drown out the world around them. Although this can be a useful technique for  filtering out an overwhelming environmnet, it also impedes developing relationships.

Play therapy is a terrific tool to help youngsters and some adults move beyond autism’s pull from their self-absorbed habits and into real, shared interaction with others. When used properly, play therapy can also help children to explore their feelings, the environment around them, and even help with their relationships with parents, siblings, peers, and friends.

How Does Play Therapy Help Children With Autism?

An autism therapist can connect with your autistic child and help them them through play therapy. For example, the therapist might lay out some toys a child might find intriguing, and then allow them to choose a toy of interest. If they pick up a toy car and move it around, seemingly aimlessly and repetitively, the therapist might take another car and place it in front of the child’s car, obstructing its path. If the child responds, whether verbally or non-verbally, then the therapist continues to develop a helping relationship with the autistic child.  If they do not respond, the therapist might look for other, more interesting or higher energy forms of play, such as dancing, or blowing bubbles, to help re-engage the child. They may introduce another toy that moves, makes a noise, vibrates, or otherwise does something to engage and pull the child’s interest away from their compulsive behavior.

Autistic children can improve many interpersonal skills after a trained professional or parent successfully conducts a play therapy session, including relating and communicating to other people, playing with peers, paying attention to others, asking for their wants and needs in an acceptable fashion, and more.  Play therapy can help autistic children satisfy their stimulatory needs, improve their sense of calm and security, and decrease negative behaviors like tantrums.

Can Parents Help Their Autistic Child at Home?

Absolutely!  In fact, it is highly encouraged for parents of a child with autism to take a more active role in their child’s therapy, growth and development. Many parents have found that home therapy works better, and can be much less expensive than a traditional therapist. Many techniques, such as play therapy, can be taught to parents to help children with autism in the comfort of their own home.  Parents using play therapy can substantially augment their child’s autism therapy at home. This helps parents build a stronger, deeper relationship with their autistic child, while just plain having fun!

Over time, play therapy helps children build reciprocal skills like sharing and taking turns. It also helps them build imaginative skills like pretending to feed a doll or cook on a play stove top. Play therapy can even help your child with abstract thinking skills, like putting puzzles together or solving problems. As they become better adapt at relating to others, later therapy sessions involve other children, so more complex social skills can be formed and developed.

How Can Parents Find Information on Home Therapy for Autism?

Fortunately for parents of an autistic child, information is not difficult to find. Websites such as Play.Connect.Grow. offer numerous lessons, classes, and educational materials that parents can use to help a child with autism develop their social communication skills, and in the process deepen their relationship with their child. Workshops for play therapy training can educate parents of children with autism to use play as an effective tool for treatment of autism, which can have a huge impact on a child’s development and a family’s quality of life, and that’s enough to make any parent or child smile!


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