Dr. Rick’s Blog No. 1
Play, Autism, and The PLAY Project
Recently, there was a New York Times opinion piece by Paul Tough entitled To Help Children, Coach Their Parents about research on young children who were at high risk for developmental and behavioral problems in Jamaica. 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. In her recent, best selling book called The Importance of Being Little, Erica Christakis PhD called for a return to playfulness as the best way to help the pre-school child educationally. She referenced our program, The PLAY Project’s Autism Early Intervention program, as an example of how play can help children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
How can we help children with autism learn to play with others? The brains of children with autism have disorganized, under-connected, neuronal networks. It’s like having a loose net of brain cells that lets the complexity of the world fall through, that drives these children’s repetitive, stereotyped, and obsessive interests—the opposite of play. It explains their lack of social abilities, even with their own parents! I can’t tell you how many parents have told me how sad it was not to be able to connect with their own child. When it comes to their developmental course, children with ASD are their own worst enemies—seeking isolation and sameness. They do not play well with others. The saving grace is something called ‘neuronal plasticity’ the ability of the brain to form better neuronal connections through experience. And what’s even more encouraging, Jaak Panksepp PhD, the brain scientist famous for tickling rats, assures us that play is one of the survival emotions; it is hard wired into every mammalian brain. We just have to find our way to play’s neuronal structures within the brain of children with ASD.
It can be done. Children with autism—like all children—have so much potential!
After 25 years of working with children on the spectrum and 15 years of being the medical director of The PLAY Project (link to my bio) I can testify to the power of coaching parents to use the power of play and locate the play centers deep in the brain especially for the youngest children with ASD. Recently we have begun to introduce our methods into schools too. The PLAY Project is one of the few, proven national programs that uses play as a primary intervention for children with ASD. Through coaching parents (and teachers) in playful ways we not only help the adults connect socially with the child, but we help the child’s brain make connections that lead to improved development, better social interaction, and less autism symptoms. And we have the research to prove it.
I joke (I joke a lot) that we’re serious about play! Sadly, one of the things we’ve discovered is that many of our families have almost forgotten how to play and many of our pre-schools play less and less with a focus on gaining pre-academic skills. It is the goal of the PLAY Project to re-introduce play to parents who have a child with autism and to school personnel who want to educate children with autism. It turns out that this is not just a problem for the parents of a child with autism. When was the last time you flew a kite with your children? As Peter Gray, in his book Freedom to Learn, says, we are suffering nationally from a ‘Play Deficit Disorder’ with loss of play spaces, the overuse of screens and media, the over focus on academics and testing, and the over-scheduling our children. As Anthony T. DeBenedet MD urges in his book The Art of Roughhousing it’s time to get rough, tough, and silly with all of our children.
This is the first in a series of planned blog posts. In future posts I will share the inside story of how we help parents in their homes and teachers in their schools to be great players with children who are on the autism spectrum. I will also use autism spectrum disorders as a lens for looking at brain science, societal trends, and human nature itself. But now I’m going kite flying with my grandchildren. Stay tuned and don’t forget to PLAY!
For more information on The PLAY Project’s Autism Intervention program for parents go to these links to read my new book called Autism: The Potential Within (http://www.lulu.com/shop/richard-solomon-md/autism-the-potential-within-the-play-project-approach-to-helping-young-children-with-autism/paperback/product-22620946.html) and learn more about the PLAY Project itself (www.playproject.org ). For more about our Teaching PLAY program for schools go to this link (https://www.playproject.org/teaching-play/).