Children with autism may play differently than other kids. They’ll likely focus on parts of a toy (like wheels) rather than the entire toy. They don’t do as well with pretend play. And they may not want to play with others.
But to many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), playing is the way they express themselves -- their toys and their actions may become their words. Play can help children with ASD learn and connect with other people, both children and adults, in a format that they understand.
Many experts offer play therapy to children who’ve been diagnosed with ASD. Play therapy can improve their social and emotional skills, help them think in different ways, increase their language or communication skills, and expand the ways they play with toys and relate to other people.
Children with ASD can benefit from any one of these play therapy methods as early intervention.
One common play therapy method is known as Floortime, in which you, a teacher, or therapist gets down on the floor to play with your child on their terms. You join in by playing the same way that your child is playing, then you add something to the game.
It might be a second toy or a few words to introduce language to the game. The goal is to create play that goes back and forth between you and your child to encourage increased communication and add new aspects to their play. It should help them grow emotionally and learn how to better focus their thinking.
Your child may meet with a therapist for up to 25 hours per week for Floortime, or they can practice this method with you at home.
Studies have shown that most children who have Floortime therapy for 25 hours a week for 2 years or longer improve in all areas of development.
Integrated Play Groups (IPG)
Therapists who run Integrated Play Groups (IPGs) combine children both with and without autism spectrum disorder so those with ASD can learn how to play while they follow their peers' lead. Groups have three to five children, with just a few children with ASD in each group.
Adult leaders set the tone for play, but the children eventually take over. If your child participates in IPGs, they might pretend play more over time, and they’ll have many chances to improve their social skills while they spend time with their peers.
IPGs can meet for up to 3 hours per week. Research has shown that children with ASD who attended two 30-minute IPG sessions per week for 4 months improved their quality of play, used their toys in a more typical fashion, and showed improved social interaction with their peers.
Joint Attention Symbolic Play Engagement and Regulation (JASPER)
The JASPER method can help your child improve their joint attention skills, meaning they can focus on a toy and a person at the same time. That way they can improve the way that they play with others.
The JASPER program can also help your child engage in more pretend play, expand the way they play with toys, speak more with others, and improve other social skills.
Children who receive JASPER therapy often meet one-on-one with a therapist, but JASPER is sometimes offered in preschool settings attended by students with ASD. Children may have this type of therapy for up to 25 hours per week.
You may notice that your child gains new skills within just a few weeks. Either they're talking more while they play, they're “driving” cars down a ramp instead of just spinning the wheels, or making other progress. They may need this type of therapy for months or years, depending on their needs.
How to Find Play Therapy
You can ask your doctor to refer you to local therapists who engage in play therapy. You can also search online at the Association for Play Therapy’s play therapist directory.