The importance of playtime for children is a given. The benefits of bonding, having fun, and opportunities to learn new concepts, like sharing, are essential to the parent-child relationship. But how does it affect the brain? According to research conducted by York University in Toronto, playtime has the ability to help children with autism.
Children with autism exhibit varying symptoms depending on where they land on the autism spectrum, but core symptoms are exhibited in the following areas:
- Social interactions
- Limited interest in activities and play
York University selected 51 families with children aged 2- to 5-years old who were diagnosed with moderate to severe autism to participate in a study about the power of play. “The goal of the study was to research and understand what was going on in the social brain network,” said Professor Stuart Shanker, the lead researcher. “All children have a desire to interact. It is the essence of being human, but autism can make interaction painful and unpleasant. We wanted to identify the stressors and reduce them.”
To collect baseline data, children were observed playing with their parents prior to floortime therapy. During this session, researchers found many children did not engage with parents, even when provoked with playful actions and noises. Children did not make eye contact and would play by themselves. The children also participated in brain scans to monitor activity in different parts of the brain. In most children, the amygdala, or the portion of the brain that processes anxiety and fear, was very, very active. Conversely, the frontal lobe, which processes the facial expressions and emotions of others, was underused.
Once the study started, families were required to attend a weekly 2-hour “floortime” therapy session at the university. The sessions consisted of therapists and families getting down to the child’s level and learning to play. Additionally, families were required to conduct 20 hours of floortime at home per week.
After a year of floortime therapy, researchers re-assessed the participants. During this observation, children seemed much more engaged during play. They were using language to direct the parents’ action and commenting on both the parents’ actions and their own. During the follow-up brain scans, the children showed a much more relaxed Amygdala and heavier use of the frontal lobe. Essentially, their brains showed signs of being “rewired.”
“These studies are the kinds of things we need,” said Shanker. “We need to bring the child into our social world so the child becomes an active social agent. We do not want a child to respond because he is conditioned. We want him to respond because it is fun.”
To learn more about the study and its participants, visit https://www.cbc.ca/player/News/TV+Shows/The+National/ID/2220343281/.