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Anna: Learning How to Play

By Joyce Pritchett

Anna B

Five-year-old Anna Bowen with her mom, Karen.

While strumming a pink Barbie guitar, 5-year-old Anna Bowen sings happily in her room.

Though she is surrounded by adults on this day, she seems totally at ease chatting and showing off the favorite toys in her room.

“She has always been more comfortable around adults than her peers,” said Anna’s mom, Karen. “Knowing what I now know, that would have been another indicator that Anna is on the spectrum.”

At age 3, Anna was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder after attending speech therapy sessions at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego.

Anna’s therapist had recommended that she be evaluated at Rady Children’s Autism Discovery Institute (ADI).

“Anna has always been very outgoing, but she struggled with things like joining in when others were playing,” Karen said. “She didn’t like to join circle time at her preschool and preferred repetitive play.”

To help Anna learn how to play and interact with her peers in a more appropriate way, Karen took her daughter to Pathways, a group language-therapy program.

“The Pathways program provided some challenging situations for Anna,” said Colleen Heider, a behavioral specialist at the ADI. “The group setting helped us to identify some areas of need for Anna and her family. We could see that she needed help with social interactions with her peers, especially with regard to taking turns and being able to negotiate with others.”

Anna and her mom then began participating in the ADI’s Parent-Child Developmental and Behavioral Therapy, which is designed to help parents facilitate social interaction, play, language and appropriate behavior in their children. Heider worked with Anna and Karen to identify specific goals to help Anna in social situations and to choose appropriate intervention strategies to achieve those goals. Heider would model the therapies to teach Karen, who would then go home and work with Anna to meet the goals.

“We are really teaching Anna and her mom new ways of doing things to elicit flexible behavior from Anna,” Heider said. “Mom models the behavior we want to see and that serves as a sort of bridge to help Anna learn to act the same way with her peers.”

In a relatively short amount of time, Anna has reached all of her goals. She can play more appropriately with her peers, and is much more flexible when things don’t go as planned.

“Anna has really blossomed in the last two years,” Karen said. “I attribute the changes to Anna’s hard work and of course to the people at the Autism Discovery Institute. For Anna, play is hard work. Rady Children’s helped us to understand that and gave us the tools to help Anna learn to play.”

Anna is learning that play can be fun.

She is also working hard to learn how to read and write – just like any other 5-year-old.

For more information on Rady Children’s Autism Discovery Institute, call 877-64AUTISM or click here. To support the Autism Discovery Institute, click here.

The San Diego Union-Tribune Kids’ NewsDay, October 2011