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Dr. Rick’s Blog – April 2022 World Autism Month

Play, Autism, and The PLAY Project

In the New York Times, there was an opinion piece by Paul Tough entitled To Help Kids Thrive, 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.

Recently, a colleague of mine, Erica Christakis, Ph.D., in her just-published, the best selling book called The Importance of Being Little, called for a return to playfulness as the best way of helping the preschool 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).

And now, this week, playfulness got another boost from the LEGO Foundation that selected, from among hundreds of applicants, The PLAY Project to be 1 of 25 recipients for its initiative called the ‘Play for All’ Accelerator program. LEGO is dedicating millions of dollars to help children with ASD and ADHD play more through this grant!

Play and autism? Can 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 world’s complexity fall through, which drives these children to have repetitive, stereotyped, and obsessive interests—the opposite of play. It explains their lack of interest in socializing, even with their parents! I can’t tell you how many parents have told me how sad it was not to be able to connect with their children. 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 called ‘neuronal plasticity’: the ability of the brain to form better neuronal connections through experience. What’s even more encouraging, Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., 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 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, 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. By coaching parents (and teachers) in playful ways, we help the adults connect socially with the child. Still, we help the child’s brain make connections that improve development, social interaction, and fewer autism symptoms. And we have the research to prove it.

I joke (I joke a lot) that we’re serious about play! Sadly, we’ve discovered that many of our families have almost forgotten to play, and many of our preschools play less and less with a focus on gaining pre-academic skills. The PLAY Project project is 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, Ph.D., in his book Free 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 of our children. As Anthony T. DeBenedet MD urges in his book The Art of Roughhousing, it’s time to get rough, challenging, and silly with all of our children.

This is one of a series of blog posts. In other posts, I 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 to look 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 and learn more about the PLAY Project itself and some of our wonderful upcoming workshops.  Check out our Teaching PLAY program for more information about our program for schools.

Richard Solomon M.D. is the founder and medical director of The PLAY Project, an evidence-based, early intervention, a parent-implemented model for young children with autism. Dr. Solomon—also known as ‘Dr. Rick, the fun doctor’—is board certified in pediatrics and developmental and behavioral pediatrics and has over 25 years of experience working with thousands of children with autistic spectrum disorders and their families as a developmental and behavioral pediatrician. He has an active clinical practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Dr. Rick is a nationally and internationally recognized expert and speaker on autism research and public policy, parent, implemented models of autism intensive early intervention, and the importance of ‘play and imagination’ for children with autism. Dr. Solomon was a close colleague of Stanley Greenspan MD and T. Berry Brazelton and co-wrote a book with Mr. Fred Rogers. Dr. Rick lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife of 50 years

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