Play is an integral part of child development. Through play, children learn social skills such as sharing, cooperation and turn-taking. Social language is learned, self-esteem is built, and friendships are formed during recreational activities with peers. Play encourages cognitive enrichment, emotional growth, and influences personality development. It offers a means of exploring various societal roles and rules, and provides time to practice finding solutions to problems. Creativity and imagination are fostered through play. For typically developing children, engaging in pleasurable, imaginative and socially interactive activity is a natural part of life. In contrast, many children with autism spectrum disorders do not play in a manner that is beneficial to development. Skill deficits and interfering problem behaviors often inhibit productive play in children with autism spectrum disorders.
Play Characteristics of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Children with autism spectrum disorders often engage in inflexible, repetitive play patterns and may not exhibit symbolic or pretend behavior. Individuals with this disorder tend to view the world as concrete and literal; consequently, they may have difficulty with abstract concepts and imaginative behavior. Children with autism spectrum disorders may also display deficits in sequencing and motor planning. As a result of these deficits, they may not develop play scripts or understand the scripts of other children. Play in children with autism spectrum disorders is often solitary. Several factors contribute to the lack of social play. First, individuals with autism have communication deficits. They may not understand the language or social cues of peers, or have the ability to express their feelings effectively with others. Second, children with autism spectrum disorders may not understand that others have their own unique thoughts and feelings. This lack of understanding limits reciprocity in relationships. Third, it is common for individuals with this disability to have restricted and unusual interests, so they may be resistant to explore new play themes with others. Finally, peers may exclude children with autism spectrum disorders or may not understand how to effectively engage them in play. In summary, factors inhibiting social play in children with autism spectrum disorders include the following: communication deficits; difficulty understanding the feelings of others; restricted and unusual interests; and peer exclusion.
The Integrated Play Group Model
The Integrated Play Group Model, which is based on social constructivist aims to improve the social and symbolic play skills of children with autism spectrum disorders ages 3 to 11years. Integrated play groups contain guides, expert players, and novice players. Guides are adults who have trained and experience working with individuals with autism spectrum disorders. The play group guides use various methods of assessment to determine how to best coordinate play activities to maximize the social and cognitive development of the participants. In addition, qualitative improvements in play skills would generalize to different settings.
The Floor Time Model
G Floor Time offers another play intervention for preschool age children with autism spectrum disorders. The Floor Time model focuses on developing relationships and affect. Interventions are designed according to the child’s developmental level and individual characteristics. Floor Time is child directed and adult supported. It provides an opportunity to transform persverative play into more meaningful and developmentally beneficial behavior, and works to expand the play themes of children with autism spectrum disorders. At the same time, it is designed to help the child develop relationships with others. Floor Time involves five steps:
- The adult observes the child playing in order to determine how to approach him/her.
- The adult approaches the child and joins the activity while trying to match the child’s emotional tone.
- The child directs the action and the adult follows the child’s lead.
- The adult expands on the child’s chosen play theme without being intrusive.
- When a child builds on the adult’s input, the child “closes the circle of communication” and starts a new circle.
It is crucial that the adult does not use Floor Time as a time to teach a particular skill. It is also important to remember that the child is the leader of the activity.
Through play, children learn a variety of skills that are fundamental to development. Many children with autism spectrum disorders have skill deficits and interfering problem behaviors that hinder developmentally beneficial play. Integrated Play Groups and Floor Time are two early intervention strategies that aim to improve qualitative play skills in young children with autism spectrum disorders. In both models, direct instruction is not provided; rather, adults provide support to child initiated interactions. The research available supports the effectiveness of the IPG and Floor Time models; however, inadequate samples and other methodological issues limit the utility of the studies. Early intervention efforts typically focus on the development of communication skills, social skills training, and the reduction of problem behaviors through direct instruction. Often a child with an autism spectrum disorder has a day filled with constant demands from adults, which when compared to the expectations placed on typically developing children, seems unnatural and developmentally inappropriate. It is proposed that skill deficits addressed through child directed and adult supported play become a standard component of early intervention practice.