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Hess, Robyn S.

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This qualitative study was designed to explore the impact of child-centered play therapy on young children identified as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with autism often experience difficulties in social, communication, behavioral, and relational domains. Often the treatment protocol for these children is an intense schedule of behavioral interventions designed to decrease problematic and increase desired behaviors. However, little emphasis has been placed on the child’s core deficits in relational skills and even less importance has been placed on his/her adequate emotional development. The current study sought to understand the impact of participation in play therapy on emotional and relational skills in young children with ASD. Using qualitative methods including parent interviews, participant observation, weekly parent probes, and expert check-in/supervision, the progress of three children ages six- to seven-years-old was monitored as they participated in 16 bi-weekly (twice per week) child-centered play therapy (CPPT) sessions. The play of all three participants was coded and analyzed. A mobile play therapy room stocked with toys appropriate for children with ASD was utilized for each session. Transcripts of video-recorded sessions, field notes, parent interviews, and responses to weekly parent probes that occurred throughout the duration of the CCPT intervention were analyzed for themes. A subsequent within and cross case analysis was completed. Expert check-in and supervision occurred on a weekly basis to ensure adherence to CCPT intervention. Member checks, multiple reviews of videos, and transcribed interviews were completed by the researcher. To enhance trustworthiness, trained reviewers coded a sample of videos and transcriptions. Results from this study suggested young children with ASD experienced positive growth in a range of areas throughout their participation in CCPT. While the progress and growth noted was varied in the degree of improvement between individuals, results indicated participants displayed improvement in the areas of social engagement, autonomy, academic participation, emotional state, and sensory/repetitive behaviors. Study results also indicated varying degrees of change with regard to play skills in all three participants; two participants advanced through the play stages while one participant displayed fewer play skill changes. For all three participants, emergence of improved skills within CCPT sessions included more natural play, increased communicative behaviors, and enhanced social engagement. These skills occurred in tandem with the reduction of self-soothing behaviors within the play room, providing support to the theory that when provided a safe, accepting environment, children with ASD can display increased motivation and ability to interact more naturally, intimately, and freely with their external world and experience a forward moving state of self-healing power.

Abstract Format



Autism; Play therapy


281 pages

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