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Play Therapy as Intervention in Autistic Children Research Paper

Research indicates that the incidences and prevalence of autism in children are higher than ever in history and, therefore, there are needs to improve intervention techniques. Moreover, pundits maintain that an ideal therapist/counselor should leverage every opportunity to address the needs of autistic children in the most effective and appropriate ways (Parker & O’Brien, 2011).

This paper is based on a discussion that proposes the adoption of play therapy as one of the most effective interventions in working with autistic children. Before the discussion, some literature materials on different interventions to individuals with autism are first reviewed.

Literature Review

Dimitriadis and Smeijsters (2011) sought to elucidate why music therapy is considered an appropriate tool and an effective intervention for treating individuals with autism. The authors used theoretical frameworks from different fields obtained from diverse literature materials to give coherent comprehensive insights on the role and effectiveness of music therapy.

Particularly, the authors used theories to clarify and support the musical relationships between therapists and autistic individuals. Individuals with autism prefer communicating through musical aspects to other techniques such as tactile contacts. Therefore, music therapy is an effective intervention.

First, theories of developmental psychology were adopted where concepts such as attunement and vitality were linked to music. Musical terms, including crescendo and decrescendo, were also linked to the human psyche and personal feelings. Therefore, the analogy between music and psychological processes and the innate human musicality was comprehensively described.

Second, the authors used a theory by Damasio to link music to consciousness and emotional processes in human beings. Primary, secondary, and background emotions are significant elements of core-self that could be regulated through music.

Combining the different theoretical backgrounds, the authors observed that although autistic individuals may have difficulties in interpersonal contacts, music therapy improves their behaviors, especially intimacy, communication, trust, memory, and awareness. This is reinforced by the fact that music therapy is appropriate, particularly when verbal communication is reduced to impossible.

Urwin (2011) postulated the use of psychotherapy treatment as one of the most effective interventions for autistic children. It is imperative to note that the author implied that depending on a single intervention technique is misplaced and ineffective, especially in the current era where autistic cases are varied. As such, psychotherapy is one of the many techniques.

The work by Urwin (2011) was based on an assessment of seven autistic children. The author started by providing the assumptions for psychotherapy intervention to autistic children where pertinent issues, including regularity of sessions, time/place/playing equipment consistency, and the persons of psychotherapists were regarded as critical.

Urwin (2011) then provided the instances when an autistic child should be recommended for psychotherapy and they considered parental care and support as integral aspects of this intervention technique.

The subsequent section demonstrated the use of HETA (hopes and expectations for treatment approach) method in psychotherapy. After some sessions, there were noticeable improvements among all the participants. One year of therapy resulted in rapid improvements apart from one case that moved from “being extremely controlled to being more explosive and emotionally disorganized” (p. 259). As such, psychotherapy is considered an effective intervention, especially due to the aspect of child-psychotherapist attachments.

Kalmanson and Pekarsky (1987) proposed that psychotherapy is an effective intervention for children with autism, especially when the parents of the child are trained and involved in the sessions. The authors described psychotherapy on a toddler (named Jonah) that lasted for three and a half years. It is imperative to note that published literature materials were the main source of information concerning the constitutional development of a child and the digression caused by autism.

The initial assessment revealed that Jonah and his parents were in difficult predicaments. For Jonah, he demonstrated anomalies in sensory integration, cognitive aptitudes, and social/effective functioning. On the other hand, the parents (Mr. and Mrs. Burke) demonstrated difficulties in raising their atypical children.

In the first year of psychotherapy, the authors described how they involved Jonah and his parents were one of the authors engaged him in activities that were aimed at improving his cognitive and social development while the other author helped the parents understand their roles and break barriers in their interactions with Jonah.

The second and third years were dedicated to addressing the parent’s separation, especially its effects on Jonah. This resulted in enhancing the parent-child relationship and a further improvement in Jonah’s behavior. On his fifth birthday, Jonah demonstrated considerable improvement where only minimal anomalies resulting from autism were observed.

The Effectiveness of Play Therapy

As mentioned earlier, the effectiveness of an intervention is vital in working with autistic children. Many studies have linked play therapy to augmented efficacies and positive outcomes (Zahra & Hassan, 2016; Parker & O’Brien, 2011; Dionne & Martini, 2011).

It is worth noting that playing is an integral aspect of childhood, where children express their internal features, psyche, and feelings. Playing could be compared to adult talk. While adults express themselves best through talking and explaining their issues, children reveal their issues through play. It is, therefore, imperative to use play therapy for assessment and intervention purposes for autistic children since playing is likely to expose the real anomalies and situations among them.

Moreover, play therapy allows healthy interactions between therapists and children and between caregivers and children. As such, the autistic children with abnormal behaviors are allowed to interact with therapists/caregivers and as a result, develop their social and emotional wellbeing. On the other hand, play therapy allows experts to perform their roles in accelerating child development in most natural environments (Zahra & Hassan, 2016). The playing environment influences and engages all aspects of childhood, comprising social, intellectual, and moral characteristics. Moreover, involving children in trained playing improves their cognitive development, especially improved thinking capabilities (Parker & O’Brien, 2011; Zahra & Hassan, 2016).

Parker and O’Brien (2011) asserted that using play therapy helps in changing the way a child views the world and, therefore, the child tends to be more organized. Moreover, supportive non-judgmental therapy sessions bring out the skills and talents of children with abnormal behaviors and, therefore, facilitate self-acceptance and social integration.

Dionne and Martini (2011) used a case study to illustrate the effectiveness of play therapy in improving communication. As mentioned earlier, anomalies in social interaction and communication are one of the common abnormal behaviors among autistic children. After several play therapy sessions, the child’s behavior improved significantly. The child would initiate playing games and even preferred games with more participants. Moreover, there were significant improvements in the number of circles of communication (CoC).


It is imperatively significant for therapists to use effective and appropriate techniques in dealing with autistic children. Various techniques such as music therapy, psychotherapy, and play therapy have been postulated as some of the interventions that can be used to modify abnormal behaviors in children.


Dimitriadis, T., & Smeijsters, H. (2011). Autistic spectrum disorder and music therapy: theory-underpinning practice. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 20(2), 108-122.

Dionne, M., & Martini, R. (2011). Floor Time Play with a child with autism: A single-subject study. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy 78(3), 196-203. Web.

Kalmanson, B., & Pekarsky, J. H. (1987). Infant-parent psychotherapy with an autistic toddler. Infant Mental Health Journal, 8(4), 382-397.

Parker, N., & O’Brien, P. (2011). Play therapy – Reaching the child with autism. International Journal of Special Education, 26(1), 80-87.

Urwin, C. (2011). Emotional life of autistic spectrum children: What do we want from child psychotherapy treatment? Psychoanalitic Pychotherapy 25(3), 245-261.

Zahra, S., & Hassan, T. (2016). Assessing the effectiveness of child-centered play therapy in reducing behavioral disorders of primary school children. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 7 (3 S3), 104-110. Web.

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