Helping Kids with Autism Learn How to Play
We talked with Beth Donati, a research assistant at the Kasari Lab, part of the Center for Autism Research and Treatment at UCLA, about helping kids with autism learn how to play in a structured environment. Started in 1997 by autism research and treatment expert Dr. Connie Kasari, the lab offers diagnostic assessments, research, and treatment for children with autism, as well as opportunities to participate in research studies.
The Kasari Lab developed the JASPER (Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement, and Regulations) method, which is a play-based program based on naturalistic behavioral intervention that has been rigorously tested and studied over the past 15 years. The program focuses on children 18 months to 6 years old with an emphasis on parent training, as well as children 5 to 8 years old who are minimally verbal and would benefit from the program.
Beth tells us that while typical kids use play to learn and interact with the world, “kids with autism might only have a limited set of ways to play, so we want to help them be more flexible so they can expand the ways they interact with people.” Learning how to play can also vastly improve language outcomes. “Social communication is a core deficit in autism,” Beth says, “so we focus on making sure a child gets their needs met. We want kids to be able to share their ideas.”
The JASPER program uses play routines that are centered on the child’s interests. Beth explains, “If a child starts stacking blocks into a tower, the adult will do the same and they’ll have a back-and-forth. Then we’ll slowly add in changes and new things to the environment, like figures that go up the tower.” The play is structured but it looks and feels very natural.
How to Work on Play at Home
To find out more about how we can use some of these techniques at home, we reached out to Dr. Lauren Stutman, licensed psychologist and founder of CARE-LA (which stands for Child Anxiety Reduction Experts, and provides individual and family therapy, parent training, social skills and mindfulness groups, and more), about how to engage with your kiddo during play.
“A quick tip that I use is to join the child in their interest, even if it’s perseverative,” she says. ”If you choose a topic that piques their interest, you can then infuse the play with the topics and lessons that you want to impart.” She gives us an example of working with a child with autism who perseverated on a cartoon character. “While all the other clinicians and adults in her life veered her away from this topic, I encouraged her to tell me a story about the character. When she started telling me the story, I could tell she felt really heard and cared for. Soon in her storytelling, various themes arose that I was able to use to engage with her in a way that she was not willing to do otherwise.” She adds, “I believe joining someone is the key to reaching them; only then will they feel safe enough to enter our world.”
Beth Donati from the Kasari Lab echoed this sentiment. “It’s helpful for parents to notice what their child normally plays with and what kind of toys they like. Then parents can follow the child’s lead and build on what they’re interested in to help work toward new skills. If the child is so interested in a toy that the parent doesn’t have any opportunities to join in with the play, it might be better to choose some different toy options while you’re first practicing playing.”
Beth adds that parents should actively play with their children and encourage taking turns. “If the child enjoys playing with pretend food and pretends to eat it, the parent can also pretend to eat the food. This helps build a back-and-forth interaction and makes the play more fun and engaging for the child.”
She also recommends matching your child’s language during play. “If your child usually says only one word at a time, keep your own language around one or two words. If your child uses sentences, then you can use sentences too. Watch for signs that your child is communicating (for example, eye contact, gestures, facial expressions, vocalizations, and words) so that you can respond. This helps the child see how important communication is!”
We’d love to know what's working for you as you work on building your kiddo’s play skills.