In the New York Times there was an article by Paul Tough entitled To Help Children, Coach Their Parents. It was about research on young children who were at high risk for developmental and behavioral problems. What did they coach the parents to do? Promote more educational activities? Nope. Use techniques to help children improve their behavior? Guess again. Play more? Yes! Parents in one arm of the research study were coached to spend time enjoying being with their child in a fun and interactive way with long term positive impacts on I.Q., less aggressive behavior and better self control.
Erica Christakis PhD in her just published, best selling book called The Importance of Being Little called for a return to playfulness as the best way of helping the pre-school child educationally. She referenced The PLAY Project’s Autism Early Intervention program—now offered in over 30 states and 9 countries—as an example of how play can help children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Research on The PLAY Project, recently published in the prestigious Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics*, showed that parents who played with their children with autism helped their children improve in the social interaction, development, and autism severity.
Play and autism? Can children with autism learn to play with others? It’s important to understand that the brains of children with autism have disorganized, under-connected, neuronal networks. It’s like having a loose net of brain cells that let’s the complexity of the world fall through, that drives these children to have repetitive, stereotyped, and obsessive interests—the opposite of play. The saving grace is something called ‘neuronal plasticity’ the ability of the brain to form better neuronal connections through experience. And the best form of experience, the best way to help young children with autism (18 months to 6 years) gain social skills is through play!
It can be done. Children with autism—like all children—have so much potential IF parents know how to play in the right way.
After 25 years of working with children on the spectrum as a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, I can testify to the power of coaching parents to use the power of play. In my book Autism: The Potential Within (http://www.playproject.org/autism-the-potential-within/) I provide parents with a practical step by step guidebook that helps parents make every interaction a good interaction. What I tell parents all the time is: “When you do what the child loves, the child will love being with you.” Play not only helps parents connect with their child in a joyous way but helps the child improve in his or her social interaction and overall development. Most important of all, through play we help the child’s autism symptoms improve!
*Solomon R, Van Egeren L, Mahoney G, Quon-Huber M, Zimmerman P. PLAY Project Home Consultation Intervention Program for Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Dev Beh Pediatr. 2014; 35(8): 475-485.