Unlocking Growth in Autism Spectrum Clients through Technology and Play – Guest Blog, Part II

Building Relationship, Gaining Understanding, and Encouraging Expression of Thoughts and Feelings, Part 2/3

Kevin Hull, Ph.D., RPT

The play therapist and Gregory are playing Minecraft and Gregory has put the therapist into a trap and the therapist has to figure a way to get out. Gregory has explained to the therapist that the idea of being trapped and the feelings that go along with it are exactly how Gregory feels at school every day.

“Ha! I got you!” exclaimed Gregory.  “You’re my prisoner and you’ll have to figure your way out!” 

“Oh no,” said the therapist, “I’m feeling alone and a little scared. I wonder what I should do next.” 

“Ha,” said Gregory, “Now you know how I feel when I’m at school and all I want to do is go home.  Good luck figuring this one out, and I might as well tell you that there are traps all around so be careful, even though it won’t help cuz you’re not getting out and even if you do you’ll probably die!”

“Okay, I guess I’ll just have to figure this out” remarked the therapist. “Gosh, if this is what school is like for you every day then I can’t imagine how helpless you must feel, because I’m feeling really helpless right now.”

“You don’t even know!” Gregory exclaims and jumps up from the bean bag chair. “It’s like there’s all these mobs coming at me all the time and I have to fight them off” (he pretends to use his iPad like a shield while wielding an imaginary sword in the other). “Fight ‘em here, Fight ‘em there – Fight! Fight! Fight!”

“Wow, that must be hard,” said the therapist. “It sounds like you feel like you scared and tired.”

“Yeah,” said Gregory, “It’s enough to drive someone crazy,” as he flops back into the bean bag chair and looks back at the Minecraft game on the iPad. “Okay, let’s see how you get out of this prison!”

“I think I’m going to do it!” remarks the therapist, “I’m going to escape!” He makes his character open a door and step into another room and hears a hiss. “What is that noise?” asks the therapist.

“Wait for it!” exclaims Gregory.

Suddenly, there is a huge explosion. “Oh no, I blew up!” The therapist looks at Gregory.

“Ha!” says Gregory, “Yep! I got you with TNT! You didn’t know there was a booby trap. Ha ha! You should have seen your face when you blew up!”

“I felt totally happy when I thought I found a way out, but then really disappointed when I blew up” said the therapist.

“Yeah, just like me at school. Even when I think it’s gonna be a good day then BAM! something bad always happens.”

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Minecraft has provided a foundation of therapeutic trust between Gregory and his therapist because it is familiar and fun for Gregory. Gregory has created a scene by trapping the therapist and putting the therapist in the position of trying to escape, which Gregory reveals is how he feels when he has to go to school each day. Early in the therapy, Minecraft was simply a fun thing to do together, but in this working stage of play therapy, Gregory is using the game to communicate how he feels and the therapist understands just how hard it is for Gregory at school. When Gregory feels trapped at school he becomes emotionally dysregulated and lashes out. But through playing Minecraft, he can simulate a situation like how he feels at school and stay emotionally regulated because it is through a game he loves, and it is played with a person (the therapist) that he trusts. As the therapist plays with Gregory and acknowledges his feelings, Gregory feels understood and safe to release more emotions and thoughts.

This process of understanding is multidimensional in several ways. First, there is a level of safety for Gregory in knowing that he has a place to release what he thinks and feels and is not judged. Feeling understood also helps increase Gregory’s sense of self-worth by showing him that his experiences are important and that he matters. Last, feeling understood gives Gregory a boost of confidence to keep expressing himself and share how he truly feels. Using Minecraft enables Gregory to show his mastery of the game and this is something that makes Gregory feel valuable and worthy. Gregory not only can show off abilities, but he can elaborately put the therapist in a situation in which the therapist feels frustrated, unsure, and finally disappointed that the therapist’s best attempt resulted in failure. On one level, Gregory can tell the therapist how he feels at school, but through the game of Minecraft the therapist actually feels what Gregory feels. This brings the therapist to a new level of empathy for Gregory and allows the therapist to be mindful of providing encouragement and increasing Gregory’s coping skills for future situations.

As therapists we often hear about how a child experiences a situation from another’s perspective. A teacher tells us about a situation like Gregory’s at school, or a parent tells us about how a kid experienced a loss or is adjusting to a shared parenting situation from a divorce. However, technology takes this to a deeper level by offering the child the opportunity to bring us into the situation provide a shared experience. I have played games like Minecraft with kids like Gregory and emerged from the session with such respect for the child because of new awareness for what they are experiencing. I communicate this to parents and teachers to provide them with a new level of awareness and empathy for the child. For children on the spectrum who can become easily emotional dysregulated and who struggle with putting thoughts and feelings into words, technology can be a wonderful tool to help them express themselves and be understood.

My next blog (Part III) will discuss how to pull themes and metaphors from play using technology to instill self-worth, create coping skills, and create perspective-taking.

Kevin B. Hull, Ph.D., RPT https://drkevinhull.com/

Dr. Hull is a licensed counselor in Lakeland, Florida and his life’s passion is helping people. He is honored to represent the counseling profession as a therapist, professor, and author. Dr. Hull is a Registered Play Therapist (RPT) and Certified Group Psychotherapist (CGP). One of his specialties is working with children, adolescents, and adults diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disabilities. He also helps families of all kinds overcome many types of challenges. Dr. Hull use many innovative types of therapy such as play, solution-focused, and cognitive therapies and conducts groups with children and adolescents to help them understand themselves and learn to use their amazing gifts and find their place in the world.