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Games and Play Therapy

What is Play Therapy for Autism?

Play therapy for autism is a form of psychotherapy for autistic children to express their feelings and discover coping mechanisms.

Autism is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects the development of physical, emotional, and social skills in an individual. People affected by the condition usually display difficulty in communicating and socializing with others and often keep to themselves. The disorder has no cure, but early intervention and treatment through ways such as play therapy can assist the child in gaining the necessary behavioral and social skills to function effectively in different environments. Play therapy can improve the emotional and social skills of an affected child, assist them to think in different methods, add to their communication or language skills, and expand the ways they play with toys and relate to other individuals.

What is the Significance of Play Therapy for Autism?

Although children with autism may play differently from neurotypical children, play is a crucial medium through which they express themselves. Hence, play therapy is a popular method to teach children with autism how to connect better with other children and adults. It can reveal new ways of playing with their toys, teach them problem-solving skills, and expand their social, communication, language, and emotional skills.

Since autism is mostly a socio-communication condition, children with autism tend to become self-absorbed regardless of what activity they are involved in. Play therapy for autism lets them explore their feelings and needs while learning how to communicate better with parents, siblings, and friends. It also enables parents to take a more active role in their child’s treatment and even take over as play therapists later on, thus aiding to form a stronger parent-child relationship/bonding.

The basic methods of play therapy for autism are quite simple. Fundamentally, the play therapist provides the child with a wide range of toys to see what arouses their interest. If the child picks up a toy, the therapist will let them play with it for some time before introducing a new toy to see how they respond. The toys could be as simple as cars or dolls or something more engaging like bubble-blowing or squeaking toys. Therapists will select toys based on what the child reacts best to. As the therapy process continues, the therapist introduces new activities to assist the child to build reciprocal, imaginative, and problem-solving skills.

What are the Types of Play Therapy Involved in the Treatment of Autism?

While every child reacts to different things, there are some standard methods of play therapy that have been repeatedly shown to improve children’s emotional and social skills over time. Some of the popular play therapy methods for autism include:

  • Floortime: This is one of the most popular autism play therapy choices and can be done at the therapist’s home or office. Basically, the caregiver or a therapist sits on the floor to play with the child on the child’s own terms. The adult starts by playing the way the child wants to and then introducing a new component like another toy or some words. This way, a back-and-forth conversation can develop between the adult and the child with the final aim of assisting them to focus their thinking and improve their emotional skills. The main objective is to build on the child’s own interests to establish relationships during the course of play. Research indicates that children with autism who complete 25 hours of floortime every week for at least two years exhibit measurably improved overall development.
  • Joint Attention Symbolic Play Engagement and Regulation (JASPER): This is a therapy program that assists the child to focus better on a toy and another person at the same time. By improving their joint attention abilities, children can play with their peers more effectively. Children going for JASPER play therapy may meet their therapist one-on-one for up to 25 hours a week. Some preschools also provide this form of therapy. Gradually, children learn how to expand their range of play with their toys, speak more with their peers, and how to pretend play.
  • Integrated Play Groups (IPGs): This type of play therapy for autism includes children with autism and neurotypical children playing together so that autistic children can learn better social skills. Usually, adults divide the children into groups of 3 to 5 each and then set the initial tone for play before letting the children take over. IPGs may meet for up to 3 hours every week. Studies indicate that children with autism who completed two 30-minute IPG sessions a week for 4 months enhanced their ability to pretend play, learned to use their toys in a more typical way, and interacted better with their peers.

What are the Benefits of Play Therapy for Autism?

Play therapy for autism can offer a wide range of benefits to children with autism. These include:

  • Helps children take more responsibility for certain behaviors
  • Helps develop creative problem-solving skills and coping strategies 
  • Improves self-respect
  • Imparts respect and empathy for others
  • Alleviates level of anxiety
  • Teaches to fully experience and express feelings
  • Helps develop stronger social skills
  • Helps develop stronger family bonding/relationships
  • Encourages use of language and improves fine and gross motor skills