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The Power of Play during ABA Therapy

by Kailie Nagrath

May 2021

reach coastal aba cape cod

Summary: While many aspects of ABA therapy consist of direct instruction and teaching specific skill acquisition, for many early intervention and early development learners, a big component of ABA therapy involves play! 

Top 5 Reasons Playtime is Important for children with Autism

1. Relationship Building

An important part of the therapeutic process is to build and maintain a strong connection with the child, by learning their likes, dislikes, and more about their personality. As you can imagine, a behavior therapist could not possibly establish rapport with the client if he or she got “right down to work.” One of the best ways to kick-off any session is to play a game together or engage in some other enjoyable activity. This process helps therapists establish strong instructional control later in the session, maintain the healthy client-therapist relationship, and properly manage target behaviors when they arise. The continuous play allows the client and therapist to build familiarity in a fun and informal manner that is comfortable to the child. Most importantly, it fosters trust with the child and allows them to let their walls down and be more open during intervention. Establishing the relationship through the child’s preferred play activities lays the foundation for successful therapy, and is the secret to learning, growing, exploring, and getting the most out of ABA therapy. 

2. Social Skills

Once the relationship is firmly established, the behavior therapist can now get to work on the critical task of helping the client build social skills which is essential for effectively interacting in the world at large. But this does not mean the play ends! In fact, social skills are best acquired when the child is engaged through games and play, like those played amongst peers outside of therapy. Some of the skills learned through functional play in ABA are: 

–       Sharing, turn-taking, empathy, social competence and perspective taking 

–       Positive interactions with others through cooperation and healthy competition

–       Effective communication tools to help clients articulate their needs and wants

–       Interpreting and surmising the intentions of others

–       Taking turns and reciprocation

–       Developing bonds with others

–       Encouraging creativity and problem solving

–       Developing respect and empathy for others

3. A Window into Their World

Using language, facial expressions and body language can sometimes be difficult for many children on the spectrum. But by entering their world through play, we are getting a chance to see the world through their eyes. ABA therapists often use the time they are playing as ways to further communicate with the child. It is during these lighthearted moments that the therapist can determine more about the child’s emotional state as the play sessions reveal mood and feelings that would not be expressed in other settings. Play therapy shines a spotlight on what the child is experiencing outside of therapy. Often this communication takes place indirectly through props and character-play that facilitates what the child really wants to say by narrating their actions, thoughts, and feelings.

4. Emotional, Cognitive, and Daily Life Skills

Play provides a natural activity for exploring emotions and a safe space to express those feelings. In this dynamic, the child can learn new coping mechanisms while the technician is able to identify and redirect inappropriate behaviors. This helps develop language skills for more accurate and effective communication and also helps clients with self- regulation as they learn to cope with frustration, disappointment and perfectionistic tendencies.  Activities of daily living such as brushing teeth or getting dressed are learned through song and dance activities that accompany these tasks. Through these practices your ABA technician is helping your child strengthen fine and gross motor skills while also practicing self-advocacy and even alleviating anxiety.

5. It’s Fun!

ABA therapy should be fun and something your child looks forward to! We want learning to occur without the child feeling like it is a dreaded work task and have a positive association when the therapist walks through the door. The goal is for the child to come to us, and then our job as therapists is to facilitate the learning by leveraging our trusting relationship within their natural environment. The child must want to engage in these activities for skill-acquisition to be effective.  For many kids, this is the only time they can play and be themselves with another person other than their parents or siblings, so this is a time they look forward to and enjoy. By making sessions playful and fun for kids of all ages and abilities, the access to learning is limitless!

More about ABA Therapy for Children with Autism

If you’re a parent and your child is receiving ABA therapy, you may be wondering why your child is playing so much during in-home therapy how exactly is it benefiting him or her. In-home ABA therapy is one of the greatest resources you can give your child that will provide them with the essential tools they need to develop behaviorally, cognitively, socially, and emotionally.  Both the American Psychological Association, and the United States Surgeon General (1999) recognizes ABA therapy as the leading practice for treating children with autism. These one-on-one intensive services can teach a plethora of skills, to help your child navigate through the world more effectively. ABA therapy does not look like traditional teaching — a casual observer might think that it’s just playtime, but in reality, there are multiple lessons going on in each session. While no two treatment plans are alike, it is very common to see a mix of two types of training in ABA therapy: DTT and NET


DTT, or Discrete Trial Training is a more formal way of instruction to teach the child the skills needed for mastery. If a child is working on a vocal skill, the therapist may work on a teaching procedure at a tabletop that requires direct instruction and multiple opportunities for feedback and reinforcement. 


NET, or natural environment training, is an approach that involves training in the child’s natural environment. 

While both trainings have distinct and specific strategies, they both include play – a critical component in every child’s treatment plan. The incorporation of play is grounded on evidence-based, technological principles which serve many important functions for the child’s progress. The American Academy of Pediatrics states “Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (i.e., the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.” 

Located in Cape Cod, MA, Reach Coastal utilizes the most current and proven ABA methodologies to provide direct support for and instruction to individuals with autism to reach a higher level of independence.

Did you know?

ABA is often covered by insurance. We accept Harvard Pilgrim, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna, Mass Health, United Healthcare, along with several other insurances.

What's next?

To get started, all you need is a referral and a diagnosis for your loved one. After that, all you need to do is contact us. Our caring team will walk you through next steps and guide you through the process to success.

Insurances We Accept

  • MassHealth- WellSense
  • Mass Health- Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership (MBHP)
  • WellSense- Commercial
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS)
  • OPTUM Behavioral Health
  • Aetna
  • United Healthcare
  • Always 
  • Cigna
  • Harvard Pilgrim

Services offered through health insurance and private pay contracts.

Is ABA covered by my health insurance?

Arica (Act Relative to Insurance Coverage for Austism) is a law passed in 2010 requiring private health insurers in Massachusetts to provide coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

More info can be found HERE.

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