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

Pulling Themes and Metaphors from Play Using Technology to Instill Self-Worth, Create Coping Skills, and Create Perspective-Taking, Part 3/3

Kevin Hull, Ph.D., RPT

Gregory and his play therapist have been playing Minecraft over several sessions.  Gregory is diagnosed with ASD and struggles with feeling good about himself and often feels that he “isn’t good enough.” Gregory struggles in social situations and gets upset if he can’t be in control when he is in a group of peers.  When adults try to correct him or peers reject him, he gets upset and has “meltdowns” because he has difficulty seeing situations from other’s viewpoints.

            One of the key components for ASD clients is not feeling safe if they are not in control.  The firing of the sympathetic nervous system (Fight/Flight/Freeze) signals danger and disrupts the person’s ability to deal with negative emotions and take perspective, which often results in reactive behaviors in an attempt to regain control over a situation.  When a person is in sympathetic nervous system activation, there is little room for learning or building relationship.  By allowing Gregory to use his IPad and play a game like Minecraft with which he is familiar, the play therapist has established a sense of safety and control for Gregory.  Because Gregory feels safe and in control, there is “space” for a relationship to form between he and the play therapist.

            Themes are elements in electronic play directly reflect the challenges that life presents on a daily basis.  Examples of themes are: overcoming challenges, making choices, developing attributes, gathering resources, and asking for help.  Gregory is gradually gaining insight into the world around him because many of the challenges he encounters daily are similar to how it feels to have to survive in Minecraft.  For example, he and the play therapist created a “lunchroom” in Minecraft.  For Gregory, lunchtime is a chaotic time where he feels unsafe and is often rejected. In the Minecraft version of the lunchroom, he adds several “mobs” or villains.  The play therapist plays out scenes with Gregory in the Minecraft lunchroom and together they find solutions to deal with the stress of the situation.  Gradually, Gregory is able to cope with lunchtime and by the end of the year actually enjoys it.

            Metaphors are “life applications” (Hull, 2015, p. 616) that the play therapist uses to increase the awareness of the child to what is happening in the game world with real issues that the child is facing in the “real” world.  For instance, Gregory loved to trap the play therapist’s avatar (character), acting out his desire to be in control through the game play.  The play therapist began to reflect to Gregory feelings of fear and frustration, as evidenced in the following exchange.

Gregory: Ha! I trapped you again!

P.T.: Oh no, I am scared. I don’t know where I am. I thought you were my friend and we were working together.

Gregory: Well, I’m still your friend.

P.T.: Friends don’t make friends feel unsafe. I feel unsafe when you trap me. I’m scared to be with you because I’m not sure what you’ll do.

Gregory: Oh. Well, sorry about that. I didn’t know you felt like that. I guess I could let you out.

P.T.: Oh that would be great. I need your help because I get lost.

Gregory: I’ll help ya! Hey, let’s go make that fort in the cave that we talked about earlier.

Through the play therapist’s reflection, Gregory is thinking about his behavior and seeing it in a new way. Because this exchange occurs in the frame of Minecraft, the game he loves, there is distance from the problem and play allows him to take perspective without becoming emotionally dysregulated.  The theme of control in Minecraft is the same theme in Gregory’s real world.  Instead of trying to be in control with his friends, he could work together with them and be an ally, instead of a dictator.  The play therapist skillfully uses reflection of feelings to help shift Gregory’s perspective of his own behavior and see a different outcome.  The metaphor of working together transfers from game play to the real world, and Gregory’s perspective taking increases, as well as his self-awareness. 

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.