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The Benefits of Toys in Physiotherapy and the Treatment of Autism in Infants

by Susie Goodall

Toys and the materials they comprise are an excellent means for children to express their experiences, needs, and desire, and to encourage a bond of trust to form between child and therapist/parent. Toys, however, provide much more than a means through which adults and children can bond; they are a crucial component of many successful physiotherapy programs and programs for children with autism, across the nation. Moreover, according to a new study, they can be used to treat infants displaying early signs and symptoms of autism.

Toy Therapy and Physical Challenges

There are many reasons why toys can be so effective in engaging children with neural development disorders, though play therapy is no new thing in the realm of physiotherapy. Premature infants are often referred to physiotherapists, to address developmental delays in areas like sitting up, crawling, and walking. Therapy can be difficult and/or painful, and toys provide an excellent distraction and motivation to encourage infants and young children to sit up, reach for objects, or use physical support to walk. Physical challenges can be addressed through play in older children as well, particularly those with limited mobility owing to paralysis or an autoimmune disease like multiple sclerosis. Toys can be used to achieve various aims, including greater movement and the development of fine motor skills, tactile stimulation, and social engagement. They can also be used to promote muscular strength and greater equilibrium. Play can also be used to create a pleasant and safe environment in which children of all ages feel free to share their sentiments regarding their condition, with their therapist.

Toy Therapy and Autism: The importance of early detection and treatment

The study, published in September 2014, in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, aimed to assess the effect of early treatment using play and toys, on infants. Past studies had indicated that the development of infants who are diagnosed with autism later in life, begins to differ from typical development between six and 12 months of age. While it is true that many infants who are later diagnosed with autism do not show symptoms when they are aged six to nine months, a significant percentage does show symptoms at this age. The latter usually include:
  • Unusual visual examination and fixations
  • Unusual repetitive patterns of object exploration
  • Lack of intentional communicative acts
  • Lack of age-appropriate phonemic development
  • Lack of coordinated gaze, affect and voice in reciprocal communicative interactions
  • Lessened eye contact, social interest, and engagement
Researchers sought to assess the role that early treatment can play in mitigating these symptoms. They noted that the primary aim of early detection was to treat autism as early as possible, to prevent or halt the full-scale onset of this condition and its associated disabilities later in life. The study tested the effects of a low-intensity treatment on infants aged seven to 15 months, who displayed the symptoms mentioned above. Parents were trained on how to impart the therapy, much of which involved toys. For instance, to reduce visual fixations on objects, children were encouraged to redirect their attention to their parents, to share their feelings regarding the object, and to enjoy parallel play. To decrease gazing and encourage social interest, meanwhile, parents positioned themselves in a way that encouraged maximum face-to-face interaction and used toys and games to capture the child’s attention.

Positive Results for Early Treatment

Results were as the researchers had expected. Although at nine months of age, infants who received the above-mentioned treatment were more symptomatic than those in comparison groups, by 18 and 36 months, they showed significantly fewer symptoms that the most affected children of the same age. Indeed, 18 months, symptoms began to reverse and by age three, they had caught up with typically developed children, showing far fewer symptoms than a previously similarly symptomatic group that did not receive the early treatment. The researchers concluded that great benefit could be derived from providing parentally-guided treatment to symptomatic infants using toys, games and other activities directed at reducing symptoms. The use of toys is likewise lauded for being a cost-effective form of therapy that can be conveniently imparted at home by parents. Some of the best toys for use with children with autism are those which encourage sensory exploration by making interesting noises, and those with various appealing textures and features which appeal to a child's curiosity.

http://sfari.org/news-and-opinion/news/2014/new-therapy-shows-promise-for-infants-with-signs-of-autism http://www.autismsciencefoundation.org/sites/default/files/Rogers%20Infant%20Start%20outcome%20paper%20JADD%202014.pdf http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcpp.12207/abstract http://www.researchgate.net/publication/256447986_Prospective_Examination_of_Visual_Attention_during_Play_in_Infants_at_High-Risk_for_Autism_Spectrum_Disorder_A_Longitudinal_Study_from_6_to_36_Months_of_Age http://tec.sagepub.com/content/33/1/4.refs http://nspt4kids.com/physical-therapy/encouraging-crawling-in-babies/