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Tools For Helping Children With Autism : Play Therapy for the Autistic Child

Updated on October 11, 2012

Me and Travis having breakfast

Me and Travis pause for a picture while eating breakfast at one of our favorite diners.
Me and Travis pause for a picture while eating breakfast at one of our favorite diners.

Meet our son, Travis

When our son, Travis, was diagnosed with autism, my wife and I knew we had one mission. No matter what, he is our son and will receive the very best that we can provide for him, just like our other two children at home. We cried a little... well, maybe more than a little. Then we got to work.

Having a son as special as Travis is a gift. He is not just an autistic child... He is a child. A very loving, compassionate child with some very special needs. We decided we wanted him to have all the opportunities that any other child would have and so we did our research and we dug down for the battles ahead.

We tried Travis with public school last year. It just didn't work out. The public school system was simply too overcrowded to handle our sons special needs. When I walked in the school one afternoon and found my kindergartener running down the hall, I was concerned. When I took him back to the class and the teacher hadn't even noticed he was missing, I was angry. When I asked him why he was in the hall and he explained he was trying to go home, I was scared. Think about it. Who, in their right mind, would let the average 5 year old go outside near a busy highway unattended? Now, what would have happened to a little boy who doesn't realize that a highway is a dangerous place and not every stranger is friendly.

That day we started looking at options and, by the end of the week, Travis was attending a private school that had more time for him and gave him the one on one attention he needed. In the space of one school year, Travis went from being at the mental level of a 1 to 2 year old to being a little boy who can count to six, write his firt name and recognize all of the basic colors. These things don't sound like much to the average person. I know they didn't to me either before Travis came along. They are small things we all take for granted but, for a child like Travis, they are huge hurdles to overcome.

This year, Travis is starting the kindergarten curriculum for the private school. It was very expensive but could you really put a price on the welfare of your own child? What parent wouldn't give up small luxuries to know that their child would have a better chance at a normal life? I don't want Travis to have a normal life. I want him to go beyond that. I want him to live the kind of life the rest of us dream about. My wife and I both know that those odds are low but we refuse to give up on him and let a diagnosis of Autism defeat him. He was born a child; not an autistic child, just a child. Every child has the potential to be whatever they want to be. Travis will not be denied that potential.

Daily Life with Travis

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Travis scopes out my webcam one morning before church.Travis & Marc Hug a few years ago.Travis and Loree share a hug.  She loves her big brothers.Mommy, Travis and Loree at the Apple Basket Cafe.Marc and Travis share a more recent hug.   Travis loves his big brother.
Travis scopes out my webcam one morning before church.
Travis scopes out my webcam one morning before church.
Travis & Marc Hug a few years ago.
Travis & Marc Hug a few years ago.
Travis and Loree share a hug.  She loves her big brothers.
Travis and Loree share a hug. She loves her big brothers.
Mommy, Travis and Loree at the Apple Basket Cafe.
Mommy, Travis and Loree at the Apple Basket Cafe.
Marc and Travis share a more recent hug.   Travis loves his big brother.
Marc and Travis share a more recent hug. Travis loves his big brother.

Play Therapy? Who Knew?

 Travis has seen many, many doctors in his short six years.  This summer, he met a new helper.  He has started seeing a counselor who teaches play therapy to parents.  It is really quite an awesome experience.  The first few meetings, my wife, Giana, and I met with the therapist and Travis to let her get an idea of how Travis responded to various things and so she could learn more about his background.  Additionally, she provided us with some resources to use at home to help with Travis' learning of proper behaviors. 

One of the most important things, she told us, was that Travis needed to play a game with us every day.  It didn't have to be a long game.  Just 5 or 10 minutes, sitting down at a table with a few building blocks, a toy car or even scraps of paper and crayons, as long as it was special time dedicated to Travis.  In these short sessions, we were to inform Travis that this was his special time but there were two rules:  He was not allowed to leave the table and He was not allowed to become aggressive.  If he broke either of these rules, we would have to turn our backs to him and play with the toys by ourselves until he decided to gain control of his behavior.

I know now you are thinking the same thing I first thought... New Age Nutcase.  I was certain this lady was out of her mind.  How was 10 minutes of play time going to change anything about this childs behavior or help him learn anything?  But Giana and I both wanted the best for our son and this therapist came highly recommended.  What did we have to lose?

So we started the play therapy.  The other two kids were a little affronted at first by it.  Why is dad playing with Travis and not me?  Then, when they realized they were going to get their special play times too, it was a much less hostile environment.   Play time came to be a pleasant experience.

For Travis, it was a big step.  He got to be the boss.  The games were things he could handle.  His imagination was in charge and the adults just got to give it a little push once in a while.  He especially loved the praise that is part of play therapy.  Whenever the child does even the smallest good thing, like picking up the block they dropped on the floor or putting all of the red cars in one pile and the blue cars in another, you give them verbal praise.  Travis smiles from ear to ear when he hears it because he knows he did something good.  It is in that smile that you can see he believes in himself.  He knows he has the potential that every other child is blessed with and he believes he can make use of it.  He doesn't have to be the child who can't catch a ball or throw a frisbee the right way.  He doesn't have to be the only kid in the class who doesn't know all of his ABC's yet.  He can just be Travis, the kid who just did something right.  That's a feeling Travis doesn't get to have very often and many of us take for granted.

Play therapy actually began to work.  Who would have believed it?  Travis started making changes after just a few play sessions.  His play time was more controlled.  He still loves to get wild.  What six year old doesn't?  The difference is, now, Travis is more in control of himself.  He can enjoy playing one game for 5 minutes and he doesn't break toys just for the sake of breaking something.  He does things that he knows will earn praise because he wants to be a good kid.  He wants to hear someone say how well he is doing.

Play therapy changed Travis and it also changed Giana and I.  We began to notice that we were more likely to notice good behaviors as we practiced the lessons of play therapy.  Did you ever stop to think how difficult it really is to compliment someone?  The first few play sessions, when I had to repeatedly say "Good Job.  You picked up a yellow block", I felt like a fool.  In todays fast paced world, taking the time to compliment someone is becoming a lost art.  Play therapy taught us that those words of encouragement are necessary.  Try it.  The next time your kid does something good, like cleaning their room, praise it like they just walked on water.  The chances are that room will be cleaned a lot more often than it used to be.

In the end, we are still learning.  We are going to keep trying play therapy because it seems to be working.  Let the skeptics laugh.  This former skeptic knows results when he sees them.  Play therapy?  Who Knew?



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    • profile image


      9 years ago

      What a beautiful family you have! You are so blessed, and I can see from the pictures that you were kind enough to share with us, how very happy your children are! You and your wife are doing everything right, God Bless you!

    • prasetio30 profile image


      10 years ago from malang-indonesia

      I am very sorry to hear that. As a teacher I support you. Don' worry, There are many solution out there. Never give up. Thanks for share you experience with your son.

    • Army Infantry Mom profile image

      Army Infantry Mom 

      10 years ago

      Wow,..I'm totally blown away. Your right,..kid's like Travis is Speacial,..and I'm so happy God pick's the Speacial parents like you to raise him. You have fought this like true warriors and the sucesses brings smiles to my heart. You have given a special insight and I know, will help many. I am going to pass this on to All my friends. God Bless your whole family, are an inspiration !!! HOOAH !!! Big Hug's to Travis and a High Five too !!!

    • vrbmft profile image

      Vernon Bradley 

      10 years ago from Yucaipa, California

      Hey, I congratulate you jumping in with both feet. I really appreciate your unconditional love for your child and seeing beyond his diagnosis. Play therapy also keeps you playful and young!!

      Oneof the activities I do in my practice with kids and teens is walk across the street to a coffee shop and get some kind of "drink." It is amazing that some parents are offended and think they are wasting their money and some even bring the kid with a "drink" ahead of time. They never tell me outright, but the subtle message is, "he/she already has a drink, no need to waste the therapy time." It doesn't happen as often as in the past. Maybe, I'm beginning to look old and competent!! But it's funny stuff and I'm sure many people have thought or perhaps still think I'm one of those new age nuts!!! If I am, I am an almond or perhaps a cashew or maybe even a macadamian--high priced!!! Oh, and I always buy the "drink." It is absolutely amazing. The walk and the drink together are like truth serum!!!

      Anywho, I do appreciate your openness to learning new stuff as parents and the challenges you may face each day.


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