Play Therapy an Important Step in Autism Acceptance

Salt Lake City, UT — (ReleaseWire) — 04/18/2022 — It might not look like therapy when James Stewart is working with one of his occupational therapy patients. In fact to the outside observer, it probably looks a lot more like playing.

Whether they’re interacting with dinosaurs, building with blocks, or lining up cars, it’s all part of a popular therapy known as “Floortime.”

“It’s an idea from child psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Greenspan and it’s one of my favorite therapies,” said Stewart, a pediatric occupational therapist with the Pediatric Outpatient Rehab at Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital in Utah. “The idea is to build skills while interacting through play, so it’s much more fun and engaging.”

Play is the “work” of childhood. It’s how all children learn and develop skills. For children with autism, play therapy is especially helpful because it can be done in the clinic, at home, and at school.

In Pediatric Outpatient Rehab, the play itself varies based on the interests of the child, but its main goal is to increase the social and interactive skills of Stewart’s patients, particularly those who fall on the autism spectrum.

“There are a lot of factors associated with an autism diagnosis, or someone who is ‘neuro atypical’, but at its core, autism is a social issue,” Stewart said. “Neuro typical people seem to innately understand certain social skills and situations, but these kids with autism are missing some of those things. We teach those skills in order for them to build that ability and engage and socially interact with others.”

Using the repetitive behaviors of the patient, or their obsessions, Stewart works through therapy to help move the child forward in their development. But this approach also focuses on the need to accept the patient’s differences.

“I’m not trying to change a child. I’m just going to use what they like and what they’re into as a mode for play and therapy,” Stewart said. “I have one kid who is obsessed with leaf blowers and vacuums. Another patient likes circles. Some like letters and numbers.”

This sort of acceptance of neuro atypical children is the growing trend among those on the autism spectrum; a change in the way the diagnosis is viewed. Rather than being seen as a problem to be “fixed,” it is a difference to be accepted.

“We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, some are just more visible than others,” Stewart said. “When it comes to social skills, there are many people both on and off the spectrum that could benefit from some training in that area.”

“Some people joke that autism is the spectrum and we’re all on it to one degree or another,” Stewart continued. “Some of us are good at social emotional intelligence and others are just not.”

Interacting socially is something that Stewart said comes naturally to him, which is why he enjoys utilizing this kind of therapy. He also likes that it is something that can be continued at home relatively easily with parent and child.

“A lot of parents like it,” Stewart said. “A lot of kids will start to engage more, they start to understand the back and forth interactions and can connect with more people. Then you start to see them develop even more skills.”

Whether he is working with a neuro atypical patient, or just interacting with the world at large, Stewart said it is important to accept people’s differences.

“People are people,” he said. “We can work within whatever context they’re in, regardless of whether they have autism or not.”

About Intermountain Healthcare
Based in Utah with locations in seven states and additional operations across the western U.S., Intermountain Healthcare is a nonprofit system of 33 hospitals, 385 clinics, medical groups with some 3,800 employed physicians and advanced practice providers, a health plans division with more than one million members called SelectHealth, and other health services. Helping people live the healthiest lives possible, Intermountain is committed to improving community health and is widely recognized as a leader in transforming healthcare by using evidence-based best practices to consistently deliver high-quality outcomes at sustainable costs. For more information, see Intermountain Healthcare or the Intermountain Healthcare Blog.

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