Benefits of Play Therapy and Autism

Young children learn through play. Typically, developing children use play to build physical and social skills, to try on different personalities and characters, and to forge friendships. Autistic children, however, may play in very different ways. They are more likely to play alone, and their play is often repetitive, with no particular goal in mind. Left to themselves, some autistic children often stay stuck in a rut, unable to explore their own abilities or interests.

Play therapy is a tool for helping autistic children become more fully themselves. It can also, under the right circumstances, be a tool for helping parents or guardians learn to relate more fully to their children on the spectrum.

Nonverbal Autism
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What Is Play Therapy?

Play therapy was originally conceived as a tool for providing psychotherapy to young people coping with trauma, anxiety, and mental illness. In that context, play becomes a way for children to act out their feelings and find coping mechanisms.

This type of play therapy is still popular; however, it is not the same thing as play therapy that is used for children with autism.

Many specialists offering something called "play therapy" to children with autism are actually providing something akin to Floortime therapy. Floortime is a play-based technique which builds on autistic children's own interests or obsessions to develop relationships and social/communication skills. The Play Project is another therapeutic approach that uses play as a tool for building skills in autistic children. Like floortime, it builds on children's own interests.

It is possible to be officially credentialed in Floortime therapy through a certification program that includes a wide range of content. This certification is offered through the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders (ICDL) but is not recognized by any of the national therapeutic associations. Thus, most "play therapists" are not so much credentialed as they are experienced and/or trained. Of course, as with all autism treatments, the onus is on the parent or guardian to investigate the therapist's background, training, and references, and to closely monitor progress.

Why Would a Person With Autism Need to See a Play Therapist?

Autism is largely a social-communication disorder. Some children with autism find it extremely difficult to relate to others in typical ways. Instead of, for example, pretending a doll is really a baby, they may focus intensely 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. Properly used, play can also allow youngsters to explore their feelings, their environment, and their relationships with parents, siblings, and peers.

Very often, too, play therapy can allow parents or guardians to take an active role in their autistic child's growth and development. Play therapy can be taught to parents, guardians, and, over time, parents or guardians can use it as a bridge to building a stronger, more meaningful relationship.

What a Play Therapist Does

A good play therapist will get down on the floor with an autistic child and truly engage them through the medium of play. For example, the therapist might set out a number of toys that a child finds interesting, and allow them to decide what, if anything, interests them. If they pick up a toy train and run 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 responds, whether verbally or non-verbally, 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.

Over time, therapists will work with the child to build reciprocal skills (sharing, turn-taking), imaginative skills (pretending to feed a toy animal, cook pretend skills) and even abstract thinking skills. As a child becomes better able to relate to others, additional children may be brought into the group, and more complex social skills are developed.

Many parents or guardians find they can do play therapy on their own, using videotapes and books as a guide. Others rely on the experience of trained play therapists. And still, others choose to simply bring children to a play therapist or have the therapist come to their home. In any case, play therapists can provide parents or guardians with tools to connect with and have fun with their children on the autism spectrum.

How to Find a Qualified Play Therapist

The Association for Play Therapy (APT) is a national professional society whose members are licensed mental health professionals with training in play therapy. Families can search the APT Directories to find a play therapist. Play therapy may be offered through a local early intervention program as a free service, or it may be incorporated into a disability or special education preschool program. It's unlikely to be incorporated into a school-age public school program, though it may be possible to make the case that such a program is appropriate for an autistic child. Outside of these programs, it is unlikely that play therapy will be covered by any kind of insurance, so it is up to the parent or guardian to find and pay for the therapist.

If families are looking for a certified Floortime specialist, go to the Floortime website and look for a local therapist. If one does not live near a major city, it's unlikely to find such a person nearby, which means there may be a need to travel and/or work with the therapist at long distance. This is accomplished through a combination of shared videos and telephone conferences; while not ideal, this can be helpful.

If a family is looking for someone local with experience and skills in play therapy in a more general way, they might find just what they're looking for in an occupational therapist or child psychologist with a specialty in autism. A family might even find a play therapy program (usually a group program) offered through autism clinics, hospitals, or private service providers.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. ICDL. What is Floortime?

  2. the Play Project. Welcome to the play project.

  3. ICDL. Interdisciplinary council on development and learning.

  4. Indiana Resource Center for Autism. Play time: an examination of play intervention strategies for children with autism spectrum disorders.

  5. Román-Oyola R, Figueroa-Feliciano V, Torres-Martínez Y, et al. Play, Playfulness, and Self-Efficacy: Parental Experiences with Children on the Autism SpectrumOccup Ther Int. 2018;2018:4636780. doi:10.1155/2018/4636780

  6. The Association for Play Therapy. APT directories.

Additional Reading

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.