The Role of ‘Play’ in Speech Therapy for Autistic Children

Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast – Episode 14

by Adina Levy

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Show Notes:

In this episode I share my perspectives about the role that ‘play’ should take in speech therapy sessions for autistic children.
I also share my ideas for how you can support learning and progression towards various goals for a child, through connecting with the way they enjoy playing!

If you’re a Speechie and you’re keen to learn more with me, hop on the Waitlist for my upcoming course – Affirming Communication for Autistic Children! You’ll be first to hear when doors open and get a bonus and discount!: https://playlearnchat.com/speechie-course 


Welcome to the Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast. I’m Adina Levy from Play. Learn. Chat. I’m a neurodivergent speech therapist. And I’m obsessed with creating a world when neurodiversity is understood, embraced, supported, and celebrated. Join me as we have conversations about autistic, ADHD, neurodivergent experiences, and I share how you can support neurodivergent children in your world.

Let’s all work together to make change where change is needed so that the world can be a more friendly place for neurodivergent people and for everyone.

What is the role of play in speech therapy for autistic children? This is a question that comes up time and time again. Many of us as speech therapists have done training over the years to learn about how to, in inverted commas, “teach play”.

Today I’m going to talk to you about this idea of play and whether play itself should be a goal or whether it should be a context for learning other things. You may already have a bit of a guess about my approach, but I’m going to launch in and help you understand my approach to speech therapy and the role of play for supporting autistic children.

Now as always, you’ll probably find that a lot of what I share doesn’t just apply to autistic kids, doesn’t just apply to kids, and perhaps doesn’t even just apply to speech therapy.

So feel free to take any of the ideas that I’m sharing today and pull it out and see how else it matches to the kids that you’re supporting in your life or to the type of therapy context that you provide. If you’re a parent of a neurodivergent child, I hope that this episode today gives you a few ideas for how you can advocate for affirming support for your child and what that play-based support may look like.

I am super duper passionate about the value of play as the context for learning other things, play and flow and interest and fun, that is the space where any of us are most able to connect with other people, to express our own joy and experience joy, and to learn new things.

This is something I talk about a lot in my upcoming course for speech therapists. It’s called Affirming Communication for Autistic Children, and I am so absolutely excited and delighted to bring this content for Speechies to give some really clear, practical ideas. Tools and information about how neurodiversity affirming practice really looks right there on the ground, in those sessions and in the ways that you support autistic clients.

So if your neurons are activated by the stuff I’m talking about today, and you’re a speech therapist, speech pathologist, whatever your title is. I hope that you’ll join me in the affirming Communication for Autistic Children course. You can hop on the wait list and you’ll be offered a big bonus that nobody else will get if you get on the wait list before the doors open.

So, head over to playlearnchat.com/speechie- course, and you can join the wait list there the doors officially open on the 24th of July, and the first module of the course is going to drop on. Monday the 7th of August 2023. If you’re listening to this episode after the fact, please still head on over to that link that I’ve said, it’s also going to be in the show notes, and you’ll find information about the next time that I run the course.

All right, so I’ve already given you a little bit of a hint about what I think of play. Now. I am guided by this beautiful phrase that rhymes all play is okay to me. A neurodiversity affirming approach to offering support for autistic or neurodivergent people is all about honoring the way that each individual chooses to play, explore, and interact with their world.

Play doesn’t have to look a certain way. Play doesn’t have to follow a developmental trajectory.

Play has to be fun, engaging, enjoyable, and if the fun and enjoyment stops, then it’s not play anymore.

Now I used to write speech therapy goals for kids that included them learning to do a new type of play or a different type of play. Learning to do symbolic play, pretend play.

I haven’t done that for quite some time, and here’s why.

I don’t see that play is the end point or is the goal And the moment that we write that down as a goal, we as therapists or as parents advocating for our kids are stepping away from the idea that all play is okay and we’re moving towards a feeling of pressure and needing to encourage or teach or show that a child should interact with toys, with activities in a certain way.

So again, remembering that once the fun is over and the pressure is up, it’s not play anymore.

Now some of what I’ve shared already might have activated a few thoughts for you. This might be counter to things that you’ve learned or things that you’ve taught kids or goals that you have written down, or perhaps training that you’ve attended before about how to do play. Whether you’re a therapist, a parent, whoever you are listening, I am going to encourage you to reflect on a few questions.

I wonder what beliefs you hold about your role in supporting play or perhaps about the role of a speech therapist in supporting play. What beliefs do you hold around play development and where did those beliefs come from?

I want you now to think about a time that you’ve used play either in a speech therapy session or in your interaction with an autistic or neurodivergent child. And you’ve noticed that it felt fun and it felt enjoyable. You felt that moment of flow. It’s very likely that the child felt it too.

Think about that moment. And think about all the factors that contributed to it.

Was it fun because the child started the interaction and you joined in there? Was it fun because the child had the freedom to explore in the way that fit their sensory preferences, their interests, their joys? Was it fun because it was also a match for you and the things that you love to do?

Let’s think about the flip side as well. When was a time that you experienced a session or a moment where you tried to force or encourage or model a certain type of play, but the fun stopped?

Perhaps you were able to recover and bring back the fun and bring back the playfulness. Or perhaps the interaction with that kid was over.

So reflecting on that moment, think about what contributed to the play stopping, let’s say.

Was it because there was a grownup agenda where you felt pressure to change how the child interacted with something or to try something new?

So now that you’ve had this moment to reflect on some of your play beliefs and where they’ve come from and experiences when you’ve been playing with neurodivergent kids, I’m going to share my beliefs about play.

I don’t think that it’s helpful or affirming or necessary to have a goal written down for a child about developing their play skills. As I said earlier, the moment that we have that as a goal, we’re feeling pressure as grownups to shift how the child plays, and that is counter to my very deep belief that all play is okay.

I do deeply believe that play should be the context for learning and connecting. That means that most of the other things that we want to support kids to learn and understand about the world, I think we can and should find a way to help them experience and learn that through the act of playful interactions and play.

In my speechie course, I share some really concrete examples about how we can mesh interest-based, play-based exploration with the actual learning goals and other things that we would like to support a child to learn. And I’ll share my model for bringing those ideas together in worksheets and other practical tools that can help you on your journey to supporting autistic kids.

Today I’m going to share one example, which is inspired by my daughter’s utter love for the TV show Number Blocks. So let’s imagine that you’re working with a child who really, really loves Number Blocks and any play that involves blocks and colors ultimately shifts into some form of imitating what they’ve seen on the TV show. For those who haven’t watched it, highly recommend it. You can find it on Netflix and YouTube and probably some other places too.

Now you may have a communication goal for your autistic child or client, or student that is around supporting them to use an AAC speech generating device to comment to communicate ideas with a partner.

So how do we keep things playful and interest based?

We might watch Number Blocks together, and the speech therapist and the parent and the child will all have opportunities to comment on what they’re seeing using the device. Compare that with:

imagine that your goal is supporting a child to learn color words, rather than taking out a worksheet that has various colors and drilling questions, asking the child to name the various colors on that worksheet. What you might do that is much more play-based is just get involved playing with blocks.

Lining them up on the floor, watching how the child plays and adding color words as you go. You’re modeling them. You’re having fun. You are emphasising some of the words. The child is hearing them, and they may well join in using those color words in whatever communication mode is suitable for them. You may even be modeling those color words on an AAC device as you’re going, you might be signing them if you know some sign language and that’s something you’re using.

The benefits of this type of therapy is that the child is engaged, they’re having fun. They don’t realise necessarily that they’re learning.

But they’re connecting. They’re building a relationship with you, and as they go, they’re hearing new concepts, they’re learning new concepts, they’re seeing them. And indeed, these concepts are directly related to the kinds of language and communication that they may well want to use in the future when communicating about that topic of interest and that type of thing that they love to do and play with.

When it comes to playing with kids and using play, as a context for learning new things, I find parents and therapists alike often get stuck thinking, well, if my child always gets to play in the way that they want, how are they ever going to learn new things?

So I’ve got two key ideas here, and they start with sometimes. So sometimes we just want to let a child play and engage in something in the way that they want to, which may also include playing solo. Watch the child to understand those cues. Sometimes join in playing in the child’s way.

You are letting the child be the expert, the model. You might well join in using your own pieces or parts of an activity rather than joining in and intruding on their direct space and play.

Or you might join in, in a cooperative, collaborative way and play together. Again, watch the child to get cues. What is okay? And of course what is still fun for them.

The second, sometimes idea is sometimes add an idea, sometimes add a concept, sometimes add a sound or a role or an action, and watch the child’s reaction.

Remembering that we do not want to take this play to a place of frustration, stagnation, not funness. We want to keep the interaction going and keep it fun and enjoyable. So definitely keep an eye on whether that’s actually happening for this child, if they’re enjoying your interaction and your contributions, and be prepared to back off. And give some space or keep playing in the way that the child was already playing.

But essentially, the way that we do add information and learning is by slowly, gradually in the child’s own pace, the adding new concepts, new language, new ideas to what the child is already enjoying, but make that change or addition something pretty tiny.

All right, so lots of play ideas there.

If you’re a speech therapist and you want more support to understand and learn and feel confident to actually use this kind of approach, this neurodiversity affirming approach to supporting autistic kids in your clinical practice. Please do hop on the wait list for my upcoming course, Affirming Communication for Autistic Children.

We are going to get really, really practical. I’m going to be providing tools and examples about how exactly it looks to put Neurodiversity Affirming Practice into play for both assessment and therapy.

So grab your spot on the wait list, playlearnchat.com/speechie- course,

and I can’t wait to share more with you soon!

If you found this episode helpful, please share it with a friend and join me on Instagram and Facebook. I’m @play.learn.chat

that’s Play.Learn.Chat, you’ll find all the links that we discussed in the show notes. Have a sparkly day.


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