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Atlas Foundation For Autism

Healing Stress Through the Occupation of Play

Susan L. Roberts, MDiv, OTR/L -

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Susan RobertsDo you keep hearing about the connections between stress and autism as much as I do?  In my role as a professional seminar leader, teaching therapists, educators and parents about nutrition and autism, I continually read articles and research papers that make a clear link to the role of stress in all forms of chronic disease, including autism.

Play holds the key to healing, not just for our children with autism, but for all of us.  Play reduces stress and the inflammation caused by stress.  Scientists agree that inflammatory processes create most of our symptoms of chronic disease, and play provides an antidote.  Most of us cannot eliminate stress altogether, but play gives us momentary respite. Creating those intervals allows the body to clear inflammation and have a chance to heal at both cellular and epigenetic levels.

Adults in indigenous cultures, who spend an average of twenty hours a week securing food, water, clothing and shelter, spend much of their “free time” in play.  We have relegated play to a minor part in our lives, and increasingly so in our children’s lives as well.  At ATLAS, we consider play the main occupation of childhood. 

Evolutionary biologists measure the importance of a behavior to survival by its’ occurrence in multiple Species, Orders, Classes and Phyla.  Think of sleeping and eating, for instance; play occurs almost as often as those two behaviors.  Certainly all mammals play, especially young mammals.  Indeed, other vertebrates, like birds and reptiles, also appear to play.  Removing something so important from our daily lives understandably comes at a cost, and we pay this cost in chronic diseases, including autism.

A number of successful approaches to autism treatment make use of play.  DIR/Floortime and Son-Rise incorporate play as the backbone of their respective treatment approaches by teaching techniques for making play accessible to children with autism and other developmental disabilities.  Sensory integration uses swings, slides, see-saws and spinning apparatus along with sand and other textural play activities to “re-program” the nervous system for more adaptive and functional behaviors.  Bodies need play to relax and regenerate; developing bodies need play to grow strong and healthy.

Boy SwingingStep back and look at your child’s daily schedule.  How much time do they spend engaging in play?  Do they get outdoors to run, jump and climb?  Games teach children how to make and break rules, as well as how to “go along to get along”.  Sharing and taking turns make it possible to cooperate in the kind of close quarters where most of us live.  Creating art, dance, music and other forms of imaginary play stretch our horizons and allow us to tap into undiscovered inner resources.  How many times a day do you or your child engage in any of these life-enhancing activities?

Here at ATLAS, we know the importance of play and how it heals minds, bodies and spirits.  Most of our students arrive here stressed from the same kinds of things that stress us all– the noisy city, traffic, performance demands from “bosses”, not enough time to eat, sleep or play.  In this sanctuary they get time to relax, people who see them as fellow travelers on this journey we call life, a chance to discover what they love, and the means to share what they love with others.

We all have our good days and bad days, happy moments and even some times for screaming and tears.  When we connect over a shared game, a valued toy, a new idea, or just sitting together in peace, eyes connect.  We see the other smile and we know that the miracle of healing has taken place.

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