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Play-Doh: Fun and Therapeutic for Kids with Autism

Play-Doh_Autism_Lisa-Quinones-FontanezEarlier this month, it was National Play-Doh Day. Play-Doh is one of those things that’s been around for ever (more than 50 years).

As a kid, we didn’t play with it much – my mother thought it was too messy and she didn’t want it getting stuck in the rugs.

We don’t have rugs in our apartment but when my son, Norrin, reached Play-Doh age,  I avoided buying it because I thought it was messy. (Sign #87 that I’ve become my mother…but that’s for another post.)

But after Norrin was diagnosed with autism (at two years old), therapists suggested we use Play-Doh. At the time, I couldn’t understand how it could be used therapeutically. Play-Doh was something I associated with childhood fun, so I didn’t think of it as a learning tool.

Here are 4 ways Norrin has benefited from playing with Play-Doh:

Fine Motor. When Norrin was first diagnosed, he couldn’t point his finger or hold a crayon. He just didn’t have the hand strength, coordination or dexterity to do so. We used Play-Doh to help strengthen Norrin’s hand muscles. Rolling it into balls or on the table with the flat of his hand. I would also hide a penny or beans in a large ball of Play-Doh and have him find it – this was one of Norrin’s favorite activities.

Imagination. One of the toughest things to read in Norrin’s evaluation was that he lacked imaginative play skills. I assumed that all kids just knew how to play and pretend. Norrin didn’t. He needed to be taught. And Play-Doh was part of the process. We made “spaghetti,” “cookies,” and “ice cream.” Now Norrin makes more complex things like cars, trucks, and planes. I love that he uses his imagination to create things out of Play-Doh to play with.

Social Skills. Whenever Norrin has a playdate, Play-Doh is always a big hit. Kids can sit at a table, share, and create together. Kids of any age – atypical or otherwise – can have a blast playing together with Play-Doh.

Communication. Norrin didn’t have any language when we started therapy. Play-Doh quickly became a great reinforcer and motivator. We used it to teach him the colors and to make requests. When Norrin started speaking, we used it to prompt conversation. I’d ask what colors and tools he wanted to use and what he wanted to make.

Before I discovered the power of Play-Doh, I worried about the mess. Now I don’t care, a mess is a small price to pay for what it’s given Norrin.

For ideas on Play-Doh activities for kids with autism and sensory processing disorders, these books were especially useful: Play and Imagination in Children with Autism and The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun.

Catch up with Lisa’s latest Babble posts:

Read more of Lisa’s writing at AutismWonderland.

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Photo credit: iStock photo

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