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Autism and Play Therapy: An Overview

Autism and Play Therapy: An Overview

If you suspect that your child may have Autism, we recommend that you start looking for therapy options while the diagnosis process goes on. The earlier the intervention, the better your child’s prospects. Studies over the last few decades have shown that play therapy is one of the best ways to impart social and emotional skills to children with Autism. Here, we offer a quick introduction to play therapy for Autism and how it can benefit your child.

Understanding Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a range of neurodevelopmental disorders that affect social, behavioral, and communicative abilities. It is a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) that affects brain development and can range from mild to severe in its symptoms. Children with Autism will have difficulty understanding emotions, expressing needs, and communicating with other people. The condition has no cure, but early intervention and treatment can help the child pick up the necessary social and behavioral skills to function effectively in different environments.

The importance of Play Therapy for Autism

While children with Autism may play differently from neurotypical children, play is a key medium through which they express themselves. Play therapy is thus a popular way to teach children with Autism how to connect better with other children and adults. It can show them new ways of playing with their toys, teach them problem-solving skills, and expand their language, communication, social, and emotional skills.

Given that Autism is largely a socio-communication disorder, children with Autism tend to become self-absorbed no matter what activity they are engaged in. Play therapy for Autism lets them explore their feelings and needs while learning how to communicate better with friends, siblings, and parents. It also allows parents to take a more active role in their child’s treatment and even take over as play therapist later on, thus helping to form a stronger parent-child bond.

The basic techniques of play therapy for Autism are quite simple. Essentially, the play therapist offers the child a variety of toys to see what piques their interest. If the child picks up a toy, the therapist might let them play with it for a while before introducing a new toy to see how they react. The toys could be as simple as dolls and trains or be more engaging, such as squeaking toys or bubble-blowing. Therapists will choose toys based on what the child responds best to. As the therapy process continues, the therapist introduces new activities to help the child build reciprocal, imagination, and problem-solving skills. At its core, however, play therapy is designed to be a fun way for children to bond with others.

Types of Play Therapy for Autism

While every child responds to different things, there are some standard techniques of play therapy that have been repeatedly shown to enhance children’s social and emotional skills over time. Here, we discuss some of the popular play therapy techniques for Autism.

  • Floortime: This is one of the most popular Autism play therapy options and can be done at the therapist’s office or at home. Essentially, the therapist or a caregiver 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 element, such as some words or another toy. This way, a back-and-forth conversation can start between the child and the adult with the ultimate aim of helping them focus their thinking and improve their emotional skills. The objective is to build on the child’s own interests to form relationships during the course of play. Research shows that children with Autism who do 25 hours of floortime every week for at least 2 years, show measurably improved overall development.
  • Joint attention symbolic play engagement and regulation (JASPER): This is a therapy program that helps the child focus better on another person and a toy 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 offer this type of therapy. Over time, children learn how to pretend play, speak more with their peers, and how to expand their range of play with their toys.
  • Integrated Play Groups (IPGs): This form of play therapy for Autism involves neurotypical children and children with Autism playing together so that the latter can learn better social skills. Typically, adults divide the children into groups of three to five each and then set the initial tone for play before letting the children take over. IPGs may meet for up to three hours every week. Studies show that children with Autism who had two 30-minute IPG sessions a week for four months improved their ability to pretend play, interacted better with their peers, and learned to use their toys in a more typical way.

When opting for play therapy for Autism, be sure to pick a therapist who has experience in it. You may even wish to search for therapists who are officially certified in floortime. In addition, do your own research on play therapy autism activities so that you can continue to engage your child at home.

Other treatment options for Autism

Therapists will typically tailor a multi-faceted treatment program for your child that includes various types of therapy in addition to play therapy for Autism. Many of these also combine elements of play, such as the use of toys to explain tasks or gamified ways to approach an activity so as to adjust to it better. Some of the options your child’s doctor might recommend include:

  • Occupational Therapy: This involves helping your child complete daily activities and use everyday objects correctly. The occupational therapist will observe the child and assess their abilities, play skills, response to sensory stimuli, how well they transition to other activities, and so on. Accordingly, they will recommend a set of developmental activities and adaptive strategies focused on completing daily tasks, often with the help of play activities to help the child adjust better.
  • Sensory Integration Therapy: This helps your child with Autism adjust to sensory inputs that overstimulate or understimulate them. By teaching them how to process sensory information correctly, this type of therapy helps to regulate their behavior and teach them better communication skills. Therapists will typically recommend a variety of sensory toys that children can use to self-soothe in case of a sensory meltdown. They can also give you recommendations on how to set up a sensory gym for your child at home.
  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): ABA therapy focuses on reinforcing positive behaviors through repetition and reward. It is a highly recommended form of treatment to help children with Autism learn good manners, social skills, independence, and academic skills. Therapists tailor ABA therapy to each child depending on what their skills and personality traits are, with the aim of constantly providing feedback and rewarding good behavior. Some of the types of ABA therapy that your child may benefit from include Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI), Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT), Discrete Trial Training (DTT), and Verbal Behavior Intervention (VBI). Starting ABA therapy at an early age has been demonstrated to bring about significant gains in the child’s behavior.
  • Speech Therapy: This form of therapy is designed to help children communicate better through oral articulation. Depending on the child’s symptoms, the therapist can teach them how to understand non-verbal cues, articulation techniques, how to start a conversation and keep it going, how to exchange ideas, how to know when not to interrupt or say inappropriate things, and how to understand the meanings of words in different contexts. For children with more severe verbal challenges, the therapist may include facial massage and exercise techniques to help them form words better. They may also teach non-verbal communication through picture cue-cards or symbols, keeping it as enjoyable for the child as possible.
  • Stem Cell Therapy: Stem cells are progenitor cells that can differentiate into specialized cells and multiply into new ones. Apart from stem cells, no other cell in the body has the natural ability to generate new cell types. This is a form of regenerative medicine that utilizes the body’s natural healing mechanism to treat a variety of medical conditions. This form of therapy is designed to repair the damaged cells within the body by reducing inflammation and modulating the immune system.


  • Does play therapy help Autistic children?

Play therapy for Autism helps children on the Autism spectrum to realize themselves more fully. It helps them build social, communication, and emotional skills and enhances their ability to play with other children and adults. It can also help parents connect better with their children.

  • How does a child with Autism play?

Children with Autism generally prefer to play alone. They may play with toys differently than neurotypical children, such as lining toys up or repeating the same motion over and over. They may also have obsessive interests with just a few specific toys.

  • What are the three main symptoms of Autism?

Three tell-tale signs of Autism in a child include delays in reaching developmental milestones, difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, and general awkwardness around other people.

  • How can Autism be improved?

At present, there is no complete cure for Autism. Treatment programs that teach behavioral, social, communication, and emotional skills can significantly improve the child’s ability to adjust in various environments and communicate effectively with others.

  • How is Autism caused?

There is no one causal factor for Autism that doctors can pinpoint. In general, a combination of genetic and environmental factors is held responsible, with risk factors like maternal infections or oxygen deprivation during birth increasing the likelihood of Autism.

  • Is ADHD a form of Autism?

ADHD is not a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, the two have many symptoms in common and may even co-exist in the same child, which makes an exact diagnosis difficult at times.

  • How do you engage Autistic children in play?

When playing with a child with Autism, always sit in front of them so that they can see what you are doing. Then, offer them two or three toys and try to engage with them depending on what they pick. Always encourage the child to lead the play, and reward them when they respond in a way you want them to.

  • What are good activities for Autism?

Children with Autism often enjoy repetitive activities or those centered around specific interests, such as stamp collecting or painting. They may also enjoy sporting activities, especially individual ones like hiking or cycling where they do not need to have social interactions. 

  • How can I help my Autistic child focus?

Try to engage your child in activities that they enjoy as much as possible. Encourage them towards completing whatever task they are doing, and do close-ended activities wherever possible. Always reward them when they do something correctly or focus the way you want them to.

  • How do sensory activities help Autism?

Sensory activities help to stimulate the brain and create neural pathways that help the child process sensory input better. They also help to improve motor skills and enhance communication with peers and adults.

  • What are the best toys for an Autistic child?

There are several toys and games that one can integrate into play therapy for Autism, such as fidget toys, jigsaw puzzles, stacking rings, modeling clay, slime, and building blocks.

  • What is sensory play activity?

Sensory play activity refers to any type of activity that stimulates one or more of the five senses, namely taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound. Sensory play activities encourage your child with Autism to explore the world around them and develop a sense of curiosity while having fun.

  • What are the 3 levels of sensory integration?

Sensory integration focuses on 3 layers of senses, namely tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive. This helps to hone the child’s gross and fine motor skills while teaching them to navigate their environment safely.

Every child loves to play, and healthy playtime is essential to the formation of social, communication, and emotional skills. For children with Autism, play therapy is a critical tool to help them build social skills, understand themselves better, and form relationships with others. Speak to your doctor about the best play therapy techniques for Autism and sign your child up for sessions. They’ll enjoy the experience, and so will you.

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