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, 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 learn to relate more fully to their children on the spectrum.

Autism is largely a social-communication disorder. 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.

A good play therapist will get down on the floor with your child and truly engage him through the medium of play. For example, the therapist might set out a number of toys that a child finds interesting, and allow her to decide what, if anything, 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 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.