An opinion article (by an educated mama) on the benefits of Play Therapy for children with Autism
Imaginative play and creative expression are the cornerstones of a healthy childhood. It is true that screens have slowly been taking over children’s precious playtime for the last few decades so, now more than ever, encouraging a child to use their imagination is of the utmost importance.
This kind of play and the ability to express oneself; not only builds confidence, emotional regulation, self-awareness, self-worth and social skills but it increases a child’s capacity for learning and builds resilience for the future blows of adulthood.
My oldest child had many behavioral problems from before he was two and had been on a waitlist for Early Intervention services for over a year. He reached the top of the waitlist for Play Therapy at the same time as having an assessment done for ASD. When the Play Therapist called me she already knew of his diagnosis and promptly informed me that Play Therapy isn’t normally used with children on the spectrum. Without thinking about it, I told her I knew what she meant and that I was also a Play Therapist. I felt disappointed and it wasn’t until I was relaying the conversation to a close friend that I started to really ask myself WHY?…Why wasn’t play therapy used and how did I already know this?…..
Is it because children on the spectrum don’t know how to Play??….If a child doesn’t know how to talk do we simply avoid talking to them?…. No we do not! We have public health nurses, family doctors and pediatricians that discuss age milestones and word counts and then we have specialists that jump in if any delays in language development are detected. In the UK they actually use Play Therapy as a pre-requisite to speech therapy; as conditions such as Selective Mutism often stem from anxiety or other emotional causes.
So…. if children struggle with imaginative play and connecting to their emotions; surely, this is all the more reason to take on the honorable task of helping them to learn these important skills?
I already had a couple of clients on the spectrum and felt confident that I was helping them slowly but surely; so why shouldn’t I expect the same for my son?
Children on the spectrum vary greatly from each other. You may be aware of some of the main difficulties; sensory sensitivities – which is a difficulty integrating information from the environment. It might be touch, sound, smell, taste or sight that can cause great discomfort to a child with autism or it might be none of these things. Another well-known symptom is difficulty picking up on non-verbal and social cues. There are many more to learn about but I won’t go into all of the them at this time.
My point is that although children on the spectrum may miss things that other children notice, or fixate on things that other children don’t care about; they can still be painfully aware that they are different. The overall difficulties and the added stress of feeling different is what leads to secondary mental health issues such as anxiety or depression; as well as, coping strategies such as, avoidance and obsessive behaviors. In fact, children on the Autism spectrum have a greater risk of suffering from the above concerns than their Neuro-typical peers.
It is not my intention to cast judgement on the techniques and therapies designed for children on the spectrum. Many moons ago, I was a Behavior Interventionist, myself and saw first-hand that the strategies are very effective. It turned out not to be my passion but I still applaud the incredible patience of the workers that put in hours upon hours to increase children’s vocabularies, extinguish tantrums, predict sensory meltdowns and teach through positive reinforcement.
I think for me, the reason I fell in love with play therapy so hard and fast is the empowerment piece. It shows children that all of their emotions are valid and that they are, in fact, the greatest experts of their own experiences. I would never presume to know what it’s like to feel pain from too much eye contact or confusion when trying to understand a teacher. My clients know they are the leaders in the play room, they choose what happens at their own pace and it is always safe and supported.
To witness the magic of a child healing themselves and having fun while doing it, is something I will never get enough of. No one can know what it feels like to be in the skin of that child except that child. So let’s give them the space (usually less than one hour a week) to show us and let them feel that they are still accepted and loved, just the way they are…….…and be amazed by what happens after that!
By Vicky Wallace,
Owner of Springfield Kids Play Therapy