Managing ADHD through play

10 May 2013

Children make sense of the world through play, say University of Sydney paediatric occupational therapists, who have developed a play program to teach essential life skills to children diagnosed with ADHD.

The program 'The Ultimate Guide to Making Friends', which includes a parent handbook, a video starring an alien character called Oober and clinical play sessions with a therapist, has so far been tested via two pilot studies. Researchers are seeking participants for the third phase of the study.

Early results of the initial two phases are promising, showing play can help children learn afresh the essential lifelong skills of sharing and caring. They also indicate the young participants are increasing their social and communication skills.

Study co-ordinator and PhD candidate, Sarah Wilkes-Gillan says:

"Play is often described as 'children's work'. Kids learn and develop through play. As small children we all learn the importance of sharing and cooperating. These skills require empathy, which is the ability to imagine how another is feeling and see the world through their eyes or viewpoint. This skill takes time to develop and we use it throughout our entire lives," says Sarah.

"While we teach young children to share, empathy is a complex skill that develops as children grow. We notice children begin to play with others, instead of alongside them. Some children may develop empathy at a slower rate than others. They might continue to care about themselves and their possessions and do not think about how their peers or family members think or feel," she says.

The program is also helping the parents of the children with ADHD. Anecdotally, parents say the simple step-by-step guide has given them tools and strategies to use at home, providing them with methods to communicate better with their child and help their child to develop lasting friendships.

Sarah's PhD supervisor, Professor Anita Bundy, says:

"What we know is that many children with ADHD can have problems understanding social cues. They dominate play time. They are not necessarily empathetic and find it difficult to learn the social skills that other children learn. This may mean they have problems making and keeping friends."

Experts estimate as many as 900,000 Australian children between the ages of two and 19 are living with ADHD.

The research team is currently inviting participants in their larger 10-week intervention program commencing in May and running in blocks through to December. The program involves clinical sessions with therapist-supported play, video feedback of play interactions, and parent involvement through home activities.

Sarah Wilkes-Gillan will present the study's preliminary findings at the Occupational Therapy Australia Conference, to be held in July.

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