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AutPlay® Therapy: Integrating Play, Parents, and Children into an Affirming Therapeutic Process

AutPlay Therapy is an integrative family play therapy framework designed to address the mental health needs of neurodivergent children (autistic, ADHD, learning differences, sensory differences, Tourette syndrome, giftedness/twice exceptional, intellectual developmental disorder, developmental disabilities, etc.). The AutPlay Therapy process can be utilized to address a variety of concerns and need areas that neurodivergent children may present, which include but are not limited to trauma issues, parent/child relationship struggles, emotional regulation, social navigation, sensory processing, anxiety reduction, identity and advocacy needs, and life adjustment issues.

AutPlay is a neurodiversity informed and affirming approach which strives to value neurodivergence and support non-ableist processes – respecting, valuing, and appreciating the identity and voice of the child client. AutPlay framework highlights affirming evidence based and research informed practices to address identified needs and therapy goals. It serves as a guide for the play and child therapist in establishing therapeutic relationship, assessing for individualized therapy needs, and implementation of play therapy approaches and interventions to help address therapy goals.  

Play therapy is a theoretical modality that uses a wide variety of methodologies to communicate with clients, including symbolic play, storytelling and therapeutic metaphors, movement/dance/music experiences, sandtray activities, art techniques, digital play, and structured play experiences in addition to free, unstructured play. Play therapy approaches can hold many benefits for autistic and neurodivergent children and their families, especially in addressing mental health needs with which they may be struggling. Play therapy is uniquely designed for and responsive to the individual and developmental needs of each neurodivergent child.

Play is the natural language of all children and holds many benefits including therapeutic components. Play is also the agent of change that propels children forward in healing and growth. Within the therapeutic powers of play, neurodivergent children have a validating and naturalistic process to address needs and work on mental health growth and goals. AutPlay Therapy protocol is an integration of seminal and historically significant play therapy theories. It is mindfully infused with play core agents of change that specifically align with the neurodivergence of autistic and other neurodivergent children.

Children are valued as partners in the AutPlay Therapy process along with the therapist and the parent. As much as possible, the child’s thoughts, feelings, and voice are included into the therapy process, goals, and plan. Children should have a say in what they want to achieve and the process to achieve it. Children should be clearly informed that they can freely share what they think, like, and do not like. In AutPlay, children are often asked if they liked a play intervention and if they felt the intervention was helpful to them. Throughout the AutPlay process, children are empowered and learn to value themselves, their thoughts and feelings, and how to advocate for their needs.

AutPlay Therapy incorporates a parent training component where parents are trained by the therapist in using various play therapy approaches and techniques at home with their child. Parents are viewed as partners with the therapist and are empowered to become co-change agents with the therapist in helping their child address and advance in therapy goals. AutPlay Therapy’s parent training component teaches parents how to facilitate the AutPlay Follow Me Approach (FMA) play times and how to implement relational play times at home with their child. Parents learn about play, procedures, and techniques, and are shown how to create FMA play times at home to improve the parent/child relationship and work toward addressing therapy goals. AutPlay Therapy functions ideally as a family play therapy approach involving both the child and the parent in the therapeutic process. Using a play therapy base that is a natural language for the child enables the parent to be involved with their child in a way that builds healthy relationship and addresses therapy goals within a fun, connecting, and affirming process.

Working from a foundation in neurodiversity affirming principles and a framework of play therapy theories and approaches, the AutPlay Therapist is guided but the following neurodiversity affirming play constructs:

  1. Neurodiversity means there is no such thing as a normal brain. Variation in neurology is natural, and none is more right or wrong than another. Remember the phrase “I’m not going to work with you on changing who you are, I’m going to work with you on how to help you get what you want or need.”
  2. Neurodivergent children (autistic, sensory differences, ADHD, etc.) are not in play therapy because they are neurodivergent. They are in therapy because they have needs such as anxiety, regulation challenges, trauma issues, social needs, parent/child relationship issues, etc. Being neurodivergent is understood as awareness of the child which may require different methods of implementing play therapy to match the child’s neurotype.
  3. Understand the child’s play preferences and special interests. All neurodivergent children play and there are multiple types and ways to play. Each child’s play preferences should be respected and neurodivergent children should not be forced to play a specific way.
  4. Children’s voices should be heard and valued in deciding on processes, needs, and goals. Children should have a say in what needs they want to address.
  5. Avoid play interventions that promote masking, camouflaging, and code switching. Instead, focus on strengths and helping children recognize what they already do well; help them utilize their strengths to address their needs.
  6. Different is okay, different is not bad, wrong, or a problem, navigating differently is supported. The focus is never on trying to change a neurodivergent child to “look” like a neurotypical standard.
  7. Relationship development is a core process in AutPlay Therapy. Therapeutic relationship is key to working with Neurodivergent children and their families and should begin with first contact and continue until termination.
  8. Play is the natural language of children. The therapeutic powers of play are a grounding principle in AutPlay Therapy. Play is the change agent and not a manipulative to get to a change agent. Play is not withheld or used as a reward to gain compliance.
  9.  The play therapy process may involve addressing self-worth struggles, understanding identity, the social model of disability, and self-advocacy development.
  10. The play therapy process may involve nondirective methods, directive methods, or an integrative or prescriptive approach. The therapy approach and process should be individualized to the unique neurotype of each child understanding their spectrum of presentation.

AutPlay therapy provides the opportunity for child and play therapists to stay grounded in neurodiversity affirming principles while working within a framework of integrated play therapy theory and approach.  For Neurodivergent children, it is the opportunity to navigate in an affirming space for identifying, processing, and healing mental health needs while empowering and advocating for self. For more information about AutPlay Therapy including resources and trainings, visit www.autplaytherapy.com.

Dr. Robert Jason Grant

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