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    5 Positive Play Therapies to Help Your Child with Autism

    Topics: Health & Nutrition, Autism & Emotions, Advice for Parents and Caregivers, Infant/Toddler (0-3), Elementary (4-12)

    Despite being riddled with its own challenges and stressors, childhood can often be idealized as a time of magic and freedom. What often makes childhood so uniquely sacred is the acceptance and endorsement of play. While play can often seem like a time of rest and rejuvenation unburdened by demands, it can also be carried out in a therapeutic manner to help your child with autism practice important life skills. Furthermore, enhancing play therapy through engaging principles of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of well-being, can make your child’s play even more beneficial by inviting in more positivity, happiness, and joy during playtime.


    • Become a Benefit-Finder

    Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) is not often used for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, it can be a powerful tool to help your child build his or her strengths and to practice praise in an organic way. PCIT is an evidence-based therapy designed to help parents learn to shape their child’s behavior through praise and play-based interactions. During a PCIT session, a therapist would teach parents how to offer positive feedback and encouragement to their child in a manner that supports healthy behaviors and interactions. While most of this behavioral reinforcement would occur through direct praise, it is also an opportunity to shape behavior through benefit-finding.

    Benefit-finding is the process of seeing the positive beyond the negative. It is the art of seeing the good in everything. A simple way to do this with your child is to count how many times you offer praise to your child in comparison to how many times you offer criticism, no matter how constructive that criticism may be. A healthy praise-to-criticism ratio is five meaningful praises for every one critique. Another strategy that you could use to practice benefit-finding both in and out of PCIT sessions is strength-spotting, the practice of identifying your child’s strengths to encourage their healthy development. Strength-spotting can help your child develop confidence and healthy self-esteem.


    • Encourage Authentic Expression.

    Art Therapy is also not a common therapeutic practice for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, like, PCIT, it can often be very complementary to traditional therapies. Art Therapy uses artistic practices to encourage communication through nonverbal means. It has been shown to support sensory processing, encourage self-expression, and develop the imagination, in addition to offering a form of self-soothing for anxious children.

    piano-autism-music-lessonsWithin the practice of Positive Psychology, Art Therapy is primarily promoted as a method of transforming negative emotions into positive sentiments. If your child is feeling a negative emotion but is having difficulty expressing it, ask your child if he or she can draw that emotion. The drawing does not have to be a specific picture; rather, encourage your child to simply let the emotions flow through the simple act of putting color to paper. This is part of the principle of “Permission to Be Human”: the act of fully accepting, embracing, and expressing anything that one may feel, no matter how difficult it may seem.


    • Practice Mindful Self-Reflection. 

    Sensory Integration Therapy is an aspect of Play Therapy that directly addresses challenges regarding sensation, such as difficulties with loud noises, sudden movement, or certain textures. It can be very effective in addressing sensory fears and using play to teach children how to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, which is an aspect of cognitive reappraisal. 

    In Positive Psychology, cognitive reappraisal is often referred to as positive reappraisal – the process of re-defining an experience to purposefully transform negative emotions into positive ones. It is an important aspect of addressing cognitive distortion, which occurs when perceptions of experiences and of the world are biased due to patterned thought. There are a variety of different types of cognitive distortion, but some are more prevalent than others. Engaging in mindful self-reflection to be cognizant of falling into such thought patterns is a strategy that parents, teachers, and therapists can use to learn to better recognize such distortions in their children with autism.


    • Harness the Power of Friendship.

    Social Skills Interventions can be used in conjunction with Play Therapy to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder develop tools for relationship building. Benefits of Social Skills Interventions include greater engagement and acceptance in peer relationships, including greater participation in social events at large. This therapy is scaffolded so that children feel safe at all times. For example, the first step in many Social Skill Intervention programs is simply to observe other peers, and the child is not forced to interact directly with others until he or she feels most comfortable. 

    children-playingIn Positive Psychology, relationships are considered the primary predictor of well-being. If you feel that your child is ready, consider engaging in Social Skills Interventions to help your child develop skills necessary for relationship-building. Consider adopting where together your child and you choose just one manageable goal for the month and commit to doing something small every day (or as often as possible) in progress towards that goal. The goal could be something small, such as going to the park every other day to observe children play, or it could be a bigger goal, like committing to initiating a peer relationship by the end of the 30-Day Challenge.


    • Just breathe.

    Can you find peace in doing nothing? 

    While Floortime is not an evidence-based therapy, it can be a useful aspect of Play Therapy designed to support sensory function and self-regulation skills. Floortime demands that parents literally engage with the child on the floor and allow the child to direct the trajectory of the play. Therapists then assist the parents in offering increasingly complex levels of play to the child.

    While it may be tempting to use Floortime as a way to increase interaction and sensory input, consider the importance of rest. Floortime is a great time to introduce meditation and other mindfulness practices. Remember that progress doesn’t always mean doing more; often, doing less can be incredibly beneficial, as well.

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    Arianna Riccio

    Written by Arianna Riccio

    Arianna Riccio is a current Ed.M candidate in the Human Development & Psychology program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She aspires to pursue a PhD in Clinical/Counseling Psychology to become a practitioner, researcher, and consultant. She received a BA in French (Psychology minor) from Franklin & Marshall College in 2014 and served as an AmeriCorps*VISTA for the Boys & Girls Club of the Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana in 2016. Arianna’s hobbies include yoga, meditation, learning Capoeira, and having spontaneous discussions about the meaning of life.