July 25, 2008

Playgrounds help autistic child cope

By Karin E. Swenson

The role of playgrounds in my son Phillip's life cannot be overstated. Phillip has autism. Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects children by impairing their ability to communicate and their ability to interact socially. To date there is no known cause of autism (although many debate this fact) and no known cure. However, intervening as early as possible in the child's life with appropriate therapies can help.

Like all 5-year-old little boys, Phillip loves to climb, swing, jump and run on any piece of playground equipment he can find. To that end, I intentionally seek out playgrounds locally and wherever we may be traveling. He needs the daily physical release that a playground affords him. Lots of physical activity seems to keep him focused when he needs to be.

In addition to the physical release, though, I value the opportunities for human contact playgrounds offer. It is a battle to get Phillip to relate to a peer by playing a turn-taking board game, for example, but on the playground he so desperately wants to use the equipment that he is willing to wait his turn for a swing or at the top of a slide, or he'll join a group of kids going through a tunnel. This is priceless. My son, who doesn't want to even look at other kids, understands that being chased by other kids and chasing them in return is a great way to spend time at the playground.

Without playgrounds in our life, we would be lost.

You can't create or manufacture the lessons learned on a playground. They just happen, and for that I am grateful. I am also grateful for the wonderful access to playgrounds we have in our area. I'm sure that Phillip would say the same, if he could. But for now I'll take his smile when he is playing chase with another child at the playground.

Karin E. Swenson holds a B.A. in American studies from Mount Vernon College, Washington D.C. (now a part of George Washington University). Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, she served as the Executive Director of The Harvard Club of Washington at the National Press Club.

accessibility, health