Play Therapy and Autism

According to Lucy Bowen, Play Therapist and Executive Director of National Association for Play Therapy, India, “Play is important to a child’s development and learning. It isn’t just physical. It can involve cognitive, imaginative, creative, emotional and social aspects. It is the most common way children express their impulse to explore, experiment and understand. Children of all ages play.”

The Therapeutic Play Continuum

Play is now widely accepted as being valuable in the emotional development of children. It has a therapeutic value. With the growth of play therapy, play work, filial play and the use of therapeutic play skills there is considerable confusion about the roles of each and the skills required to be an expert practitioner.

Monika Jephcott and Jeff Thomas, whilst working for Play Therapy United Kingdom as a concept to explain the different applications of play in helping children with their problems developed the Therapeutic Play Continuum.

Definitions of each of the main terms are given and related graphically to each other in the Therapeutic Play Continuum diagram.


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The Applications of Play


Play Therapy International’s definition of play is ‘A physical or mental leisure activity that is undertaken purely for enjoyment or amusement and has no other objective’.

Play Work

Play work is defined as an activity that uses play to engage children safely when their parents or caregivers cannot be present to look after them and/or to help them to learn.

Therapeutic Play

The main objective of therapeutic play is to better the emotional well being of the child. It accomplishes this through the use of play and/or the creative arts.

Play Therapy

Play Therapy uses a variety of play and creative arts techniques (the ‘Play Therapy Tool-Kit (TM)’ to alleviate chronic, mild and moderate psychological and emotional conditions in children that are causing behavioral problems and/or are preventing children from realizing their potential.

Filial Play Therapy

Filial play and filial therapy are relatively recent applications that use play to help infants under the age of 3 as well as children up to the age of 14, in their mental and emotional development which for some reason, such as attachment issues, may be impaired. It is also designed to improve parent/child relationships.

How can Play Therapy help a person with Autism?

Children with autism find it extremely difficult to relate to others — particularly to children of their own age groups — in ordinary ways. Instead of playing with toys in imaginative or symbolic ways (pretending a doll is really “my baby,” for example) they may obsess on objects, use them for self-stimulation, and become entirely self-absorbed.

Play is a wonderful tool for helping children (and sometimes even adults) to move beyond autism’s self-absorption into real, shared interaction. Many times play therapy can allow parents to take an active role in their autistic child’s growth and progress. Over time, parents can become their child’s therapist and form a stronger, more meaningful bond.

Approaches used by a Play Therapist

  1. Directive Play: During a Directive Play session the therapist leads the way or guides the child. This approach is more goal oriented, wherein the therapist uses techniques to help teach a child how to deal with an issue or problem he or she is facing, so that the child is able to cope, grow or adapt accordingly. Directive techniques include games that are generally chosen FOR the child. For example, if the therapist gives puppets to a child who has experienced sexual abuse, the therapist has already pre-determined who the puppet characters would be.



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  1. Non-directive Play: During a Non-directive play therapy session, the therapist bases confidence in the child’s ability to direct his or her own process. The role of the therapist is to observe and assess the choices and actions made by the child. Through the Non-directive method children gain more or better insight into their consciousness, thoughts, and emotions, and test their own reality. Sand Tray Therapy and the use of Puppets are popular non-directive techniques which therapists use. Non-Directive techniques include games that are generally chosen BY the child.



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What makes a good Play Therapist?

A good play therapist will create a welcoming and safe environment for the child. A good play therapist will get down on the floor with your autistic child and truly absorb her through the medium of play. For example, the therapist might set out several interesting toys, and allow the child to pick something that interests her. If she picks up a toy train and runs it back and forth, apparently aimlessly, the therapist might pick up another train and place it in front of the child’s train, blocking its path. If the child reacts — verbally or non-verbally — then a relationship has begun.

If the child doesn’t respond, the therapist might look for high-interest, high-energy options to engage the child. Bubble blowing is often successful, as are toys that move, squeak, vibrate, and otherwise DO something that attracts the senses.



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Parents discover that they can do play therapy on their own, using videotapes and books as a guide. Others rely on the experience of trained play therapists. Many others opt to simply bring their children to a play therapist or engage a visiting therapist at home. Play therapists therefore provide parents with tools to connect with and have fun with their children on the autism spectrum.



Image Courtesy – Tea Party. Getty Images By Lisa Jo Rudy, August 19, 2016


Children, Therapy & Treatment