Play Therapy for Children with Autism

ABA therapy provides our therapists with a variety of different tools and teaching techniques in order to properly assist your child’s development. The variety that ABA provides is one of the reasons why it’s such an effective way to teach children with autism. The fact that every child with autism requires different teaching strategies for those lessons to be effective makes ABA the preferred form of therapy. One of the methods under the umbrella of ABA is a form of therapy called Play Therapy.

What is Play Therapy?

Play Therapy is a therapeutic form of teaching that involves actual play time with the patient. It’s obvious to everyone involved in the field that play is such an important aspect of a child’s happiness and their overall well-being. Play therapy, typically utilized with children that fall within the 3 to 12 year range, is a way to encourage children to express themselves. At its core, play time is interacting with others, a child expressing what they want or don’t want, and using effective communication to gain access to the positive effects that play provides. Play Therapy uses these core characteristics as a way to teach those children who struggle with these skills.

Play Therapy has the ability to teach and develop a vast amount of skills in children with autism. Therapists can take these play opportunities that your child loves and incorporate lessons within them involving motor skills, coordination, social and communication skills, listening skills, turn taking skills, sharing skills, etc. It’s such an effective way of teaching because it incorporates play and preferred activities for a child into all of these skill deficiencies.

Who Administers Play Therapy?

Play therapy, like most forms of therapy, requires those who develop the guidelines to each individual plan to have completed extensive training. The therapy session plans would be put into place by licensed mental health professionals with either a Master’s degree or a Doctorate degree within a mental health field. Therapists who run the sessions are expected to have extensive training, special education experience and have had supervision in running these sessions. However, aspects of play therapy can be taken into the home and its encouraged that parents, siblings, caregivers and friends to partake in the techniques outside of sessions.

Play Therapy Benefits

With its broad reach, covering such a vast amount of teachable skills, Play Therapy offers a unique amount of benefits for children with autism. Here are five major benefits to that Play Therapy offers your child.

Expressing Emotions

Play Therapy is especially effective for those children who have trouble properly expressing their emotions. A lot of times, these children don’t have the necessary language skills to say what they need to say in a given moment. Instead they express how their feeling with other undesired behaviors like aggression, self-injury, property destruction or tantrum behavior. With Play Therapy your child is given play time as an outlet of expression while using the toys or activities they choose as their words. For example, your child may act out a situation with toys they’ve become detached from since it has a negative effect on their emotions. Maybe your child witnessed or experienced bullying within the classroom, they may subconsciously act this scenario out using toys that they have. It’s difficult for a lot of children to verbally express themselves and some children just haven’t developed that skill yet. Play therapy provides them an avenue to express these suppressed emotions.

Improvement of Social Skills

Inherently, Play Therapy sessions will emphasize relationship building. Through the process of interacting and having fun with their therapist, your child is seeing the effects of becoming close with someone and building that trust with another person. Seeing how it can positively affect their day and their mood is going to make interacting with others more attractive for them. It also allows them to feel out different interaction styles, whether they realize it or not. Your child will be looking for ways to get closer to the person associated with positive interactions they get during play therapy (the therapist). They will come to find that different actions they exhibit will yield different reactions from that person. This will make it more likely that the appropriate interactions will continue to occur in future relationship building scenarios.

Decreases less desired behaviors and promotes self-regulating behavior
Through Play Therapy, your child will begin to understand that properly communicating their wants and needs will quickly give them access to desired items or activities. Play time is such a huge part of a child expressing their feelings that giving them more chances to do so is a good way of showing how this expression is a much more effective and easier way of accessing what they want than previous behaviors like aggressions or tantrum behavior.

Play Therapy also provides your child with a safe environment for learning self-regulating behavior. Let’s say your child has property destruction tendencies (breaking, throwing, smashing objects, etc.). When they exhibit this behavior with a toy that they prefer, they will quickly realize that they no longer have access to that toy if they choose to break it and that it was a direct result of a behavior they exhibited. This increases their awareness to their own behaviors and the consequences of those behaviors.

Can be incorporated to family time

As mentioned earlier, Play Therapy can be and is encouraged to be brought into the home and utilized outside of therapy sessions. It gives you the opportunity to be on the ground floor of your child’s developing relationship skills. Showing them and pairing yourself with these fun and preferred activities will naturally make your relationship stronger and allow you to further relate with your child.

Develops Independence

In typical learning environments, the child is guided through lessons and essentially told what to do. This is necessary for certain types of teaching, but with Play Therapy, the child steers the experience. They have the ability to pick which activities they are engaging in with play therapy and, for the most part, they control the pace of the session. Play Therapy puts your child in a position to make their own decisions and promote that independence that is so valuable for development.

Play Therapy Examples

Like other therapeutic strategies, Play Therapy involves a variety of techniques to teach children. There are different methods of teaching that are used based off of the child’s specific needs. The following are three different Play Therapy techniques.

Group Games

By having children with autism participate in group activities like board games with their therapist or with their peers will give plenty of opportunity to teach and work on communication skills and social skills. Therapists will be able to emphasize the importance of turn taking and sharing during these games as well as communicating. For example, a simple instruction during something like this could be to encourage the child to say “your turn” to the next person up after taking their own turn in the game. Simple skills like this will begin to add up and can go a long way in further developments.

Sensory Activities

Using things like Play-Doh or sculpting clay gives your child a chance to use the fine motor skills it takes to manipulate the objects and form the shapes that they want. It also gives them the ability to enhance their creativity and imagination. The therapist could even model expressing this creativity by saying “I’m going to make a doughnut” while forming the shape of the food and then pretending to eat it. This will show your child the possibilities that these activities can present and also show that pretending and being creative is fun.

Role-Playing Techniques

Role-playing during Play Therapy is also a good way to promote creativity and it allows your child to express themselves. Giving them the opportunity to take a fireman’s hat and pretend to put out fires or to take a cape and pretend to be their favorite superhero shows that it’s fun to express themselves and put their interests out there. It also promotes their independence, allowing them to pick the costume and the “scene” they’d like to play out at that time.

SPBS Play Therapy

Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services provides its patients with all that they need to succeed and improve. This means that our team of Doctors and Master’s level supervisors work together to create a plan that will effectively treat and teach your child. In our clinic and home sessions, we incorporate aspects of Play Therapy into our individual plans to give your child a way of expressing themselves, promoting their independence and just having fun with their learning experience. If you have any further questions regarding Play Therapy or just general questions about your child and ABA therapy, don’t hesitate to call our team at SPBS.