How do you help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or sensory issues?
I often base my work on a form of parent-child interactive play therapy called Theraplay®, which has been proven to help kids with ASD. Theraplay helps kids experience intrinsic joy in relating with others and fosters natural social skills, as well as improving emotional regulation, flexibility, and self-esteem. Theraplay works to help kids feel safe with changes in routine or small disappointments by increasing their sense of "felt safety" and their trust in the world around them.
Theraplay can also help children feel more comfortable tolerating a growing range of sensory experiences, such as new sounds, textures, or ways of moving. We will use the strengths of your child to grow their repertoire of "safe" sensory activities.
Is Theraplay like Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)?
ABA is a behavioral approach that works to analyze a child's behaviors and shape those behaviors, mostly through the use of material rewards to motivate the child toward better behavior. ABA generally focuses on functional behaviors; for instance, sitting at a desk during class or using "I feel" statements when angry. In ABA, the focus is on the child.
Theraplay is a relational approach: the client actually isn't the child, it's the parent-child relationship. In Theraplay, you will work to nourish a deep and influential relationship with your child. "Negative" behaviors are understood as the surface-level expression of an underlying emotional or sensory need. These "bad" behaviors are a signal that your child is having a hard time- a cry for help. So together, us adults work to understand the meaning of your child's behavior in order to help him.
Theraplay's main focus actually isn't on behaviors at all- but instead, on understanding and meeting your child's needs. Because when your child feels safe, connected, lovable and strong, "good" behaviors will become intrinsically and socially rewarding. This lack of focus on material rewards and consequences means Theraplay can work for kids who don't respond to those types of parenting strategies and seem instead to "just not care about anything."
Can you help kids who don't speak with words?
Yes! Over 90% of social communication is "non-verbal": body language, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and voice tones. In Theraplay, we are focusing almost exclusively on this 90%, even with very verbal children. In some ways, pre-verbal or non-verbal children actually have an easier time benefitting from Theraplay than those with big vocabularies. Children who are very resistant to socially interacting with others can also benefit greatly.
Will you cure my child?
I work from the belief that ASD is not a disease, and therefore there is no need for a cure. There is need for acceptance, accommodation, and support. ASD is part of the awe-inspiring "neurodiversity" of humankind. Your child's brain works differently, and that is okay! Just like all children, your child was born with unique strengths and areas for growth. The ASD diagnosis may capture some, but certainly not all, of your child's aptitudes and struggles. In therapy we stretch your child in their particular growth areas with gentleness and curiosity. We help your child spend more time feeling confident, safe, and unconditionally accepted. As a therapist, my job is to help your family navigate a world that's designed for neurotypical people and feel better. My job is not to "fix" or "cure" anybody.
Ready to take the next step?
Looking for additional resources, wraparound, and help understanding a loved one on the spectrum? I highly recommend reaching out to Kara Nash at Your Autism Advocate.