An innovative program helps the families of autism connect

Melissa Kossler Dutton
Shown in these pictures is the Cooper family: 3-year-old Matthew, 6-year-old Sarah, 9-year-old Jena, mom Gina and dad Erik. Matthew participated in the PLAY Projected (Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters) with Joanna Evans (also shown in blue shirt) of the Delaware County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Matthew has shown a huge improvement since going through the program.

As a toddler, Kara Chesarek's son would scoot away from her when she tried to engage him. Rather than try to converse with her, he would repeat the words "blue car."

The Delaware County mother knew the behavior was related to autism, which Daxpitchee – or as the family calls him, "Bear" – was diagnosed with early. Still, she longed for a way to connect with him.

When the Delaware County Board of Developmental Disabilities recommended a new therapy designed for children with autism that would involve training Chesarek on methods of engaging with her son, she eagerly agreed.

In fall 2012, Chesarek began learning the concepts of the PLAY Project, an early-intervention program that focuses on teaching parents to have high-quality interactions with their children that lead to developmental gains. PLAY stands for Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters.

Parents are taught to meet their children where they are at developmentally and participate in the activities that interest them, said Joanna Evans, an early-intervention specialist with the Delaware County board.

If a child loves lining up toy trains, the parents must do it, too.

"It's almost so simple, it's genius," Evans said. "When you do what the child loves, the child will love being with you."

The program recognizes that many children with autism engage in repetitive behaviors, so parents are provided with ideas on how to slowly build on the favored activity.

Since Bear loved spinning the wheels on cars, Chesarek would do that, too. She also would push the cars on the floor, make car noises and find other things to do with cars. It didn't take long for Bear to want to do what she was doing. Gradually, he began to seek her out to play. He was about 20 months old when they started.

Today, Bear, who is now 3, plays with other children, loves to talk and has interests other than cars. His mother attributes the majority of his developmental growth to the PLAY Project therapies.

"It's definitely made him happier," Chesarek said. "He's calmer. He interacts with children and adults."

The therapy focuses on helping children engage, interact, problem solve, play pretend and develop emotional thinking, said Onna Solomon, executive director of the PLAY Project in Ann Arbor, Mich., and a licensed social worker.

The program started when Solomon's father, Dr. Richard Solomon, moved to Michigan and realized there were very few early-intervention options for children with autism. The pediatrician knew early intervention was critical to their development, so in 2001 he created a program that would train parents to help their children.

The program recently received a $1.85 million research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study the success of the therapy. Although program officials haven't officially written up their findings, they have had "very positive results," Onna Solomon said.

Evans has seen improvement among many of the children in Delaware County's PLAY initiative.

"For me, this program has revolutionized how I do my job every day as an early-intervention specialist - not just with children with autism," she said.

She trains parents to work with their children and videotapes them doing it. Evans and other trained professionals review the tapes and make recommendations to parents. The videos help parents see the subtle ways their children are attempting to communicate with them. They also provide a good record of the child's growth.

Parents who receive the training are asked to work with their children for 20 to 40 hours a week.

Much of the therapy can be incorporated into day-to-day life. Mealtime, bath time and rides in the car can provide opportunities for parent to initiate PLAY Program engagements.

"Parents say it becomes second nature," Evans said.

Instead of just watching Bear hold his animal-shaped bath toys, his mother began holding them and making animal sounds, and talking about what colors the animals were. The interaction helped him begin to speak and learn his colors, she said.

Chesarek was able to learn PLAY Program therapies because the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities has committed to making the training available to families throughout Ohio. In central Ohio, the therapy also is available in Franklin and Pickaway counties. The state is in the process of training early-intervention specialists, social workers and others to teach the program so it's available in every county.

The PLAY Program is so attractive because it's cost-effective and helps parents build bonds with their children, said John L. Martin, director of the Ohio DODD.

Often, children with autism are uninterested in their parents and/or being touched or held, but the PLAY Program makes them want to interact, he said. Trained parents also mean children are repeatedly exposed to a quality therapy in their home rather than having to travel to a clinical setting, Martin added.

"Investing in parents creates the parents' ability to constantly be working with their son or daughter," he said. It also allows the adults to develop relationships with their children, he added. State officials realized it would be "a huge benefit" to make training available to all families of children with autism.

"This would be a real gift we can give families," Martin said.