Play Therapy as used as an intervention for children with autism is different from the original type of play therapy which is a way of providing psychotherapy to young children coping with trauma, mental illness and anxiety and is a way for children to act out their feelings and find coping mechanisms. Play Therapy provided to children with autism is more akin to Floortime Therapy.
Play Therapy uses play as a tool for building skills in children with autism, using the child’s own interests as the starting point. As the core deficits of autism are in the social and communication domains, children with autism find it difficult to relate to others - particularly peers – in ordinary ways. Rather than playing with toys in imaginative or symbolic ways (pretending that a doll is a real baby, for example), children with autism often perseverate on objects, use them for self-stimulation and become self-absorbed. Play can be a useful tool to help children to move beyond the self-absorption of autism into share interactions with others. Because play therapy uses the tools of ordinary, typical childhood (toys and games), it can often allow parents to take an active role in their child’s development and growth and create stronger relationships between the parent and child with autism.
Play Therapy involves getting down on the floor with the child and trying to engage him through 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 -- verbally or non-verbally -- then 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, the 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 (putting together puzzles, solving problems). 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.