In my experience, I have learned that Play is the natural language of choice for all children.
Last night at dinner, I sat across from a 17-month-old toddler who didn't speak English. He had just woken up from a nap albeit jet-lagged. His mom gave him a cup of water, and he drank from the cup, placed it back on the table, and his mom pointed at the coaster and said something to him. He placed the cup on the coaster and then flashed us all a big smile. He then moved the cup and picked up the coaster, he pointed at the coasters on either side of him and the adults next to him gave them to him. He began collecting all the coasters and I too handed my coaster over. There were big smiles and coos.
It struck me that this entire exchange was completely non-verbal. Aside from his mom, no one else spoke to him but we all still played with him.
We understood when something made him happy, receiving and collecting the coasters. It made me think of my sessions and how this simple act of "Play" helps so many children express their inner world into our physical world. This is why I choose to do Play Therapy. It truly is a great way to address the mental health needs of children from all backgrounds. The methods may change to support the child but at the root of it all, the child is given a voice, they are valued, and affirms the identity of the child.
Play Therapy and Neurodiverse children
Time and time again, Play therapy has been shown to support neurodiverse children such as children on the spectrum, with ADHD, and other developmental issues. Play therapy is a long-standing alternative therapy treatment option for neurodiverse children. The consensus among child psychiatrists and psychologists is that playtime can often be used to help children learn, reduce anxiety and improve self-esteem. This is because children can express themselves without needing to talk.
Neurodiverse children hear lots of ‘Nos’ and ‘Be careful,’ and ‘Don’t do that,'. Constantly being told ‘no,’ or having to hold themselves back puts a strain on children causing their symptoms to get worse. However, Play is a child’s natural way of recovering from daily emotional upheavals. While there are many teachable moments, playtime is more about relationship building. In my experience outside of Play Therapy, no child, Neurodiverse or Neurotypical has ever come up to me and told me what’s on their mind. Think of all the times you've had to cox the truth behind what's wrong with the children around you, chances are you've had to make a lot of guesses.
The "Play" in play therapy is a way to change a child's perception, cognition, and ultimately behavior. A child I had worked with recently comes to mind. When she first started out with me, April always went straight to the sensory table to make some slime. April would smash, and mix the dough loudly. She would squeeze it hard, pulling on the dough strongly. She did this every single session over 6 weeks. After those 6 weeks I noticed that she became gentler with handling the dough, she started humming a tune, and soon she asked me to join in.
You might wonder what shifted? Interestingly, the dough stimulated the nerves in her hands that are connected to the limbic region of the brain. This part of the brain is associated with emotional processing. When these nerves are stimulated, they send a signal to the brain and thus reducing her stress and anxiety. It also triggered happy hormones such as endorphins which improved her mood greatly.
As a therapist, I further interpreted that the first 6 weeks were a projection of anger and frustration over April's life experiences. April's anxiety had greatly reduced over time as the dough worked as a stress-relieving toy for her. If we don’t allow children like April to make this connection through play, reduce their anxiety in this way, she will connect in a way that is aggravating and intrusive such as destroying books, breaking things at home, and then we as parents get into punishment mode. It becomes an unproductive cycle and issues never get addressed and resolved.
Everyone deserves a happy childhood including neurodiverse children. This is why Play Therapy continues to be a developmentally appropriate treatment, for children aged 3 to 16, that promotes communication in the child’s natural language, of play.