ABA Therapy vs. Play Therapy

If you meet parents with a child who has special needs, you are likely to hear that the child is currently in therapy – and several kinds to add to that. Children with special needs may have many various kinds of challenges in executing daily tasks that the average child may do with ease. These include walking, getting dressed, brushing their teeth, communicating wants and needs, emotional regulation, among others. Therapy helps significantly in relieving these issues and improving quality of life for the child as well as the family by extension.


Today we look at two types of popular therapy and distinguish between them. ABA therapy, known formally as Applied Behavior Analysis is a therapy given to improve socially significant behavior within a wide range of disabilities. This therapy is guided by the science of behavior and uses principles such as reinforcement, praise and modeling to change behavior. Play therapy, on the other hand, is conducted in a less restricted and contrived environment and focuses on improving skills such as listening, sharing, cooperating with others, taking turns, joint attention, rule following and emotional expression by playing with toys and games. Play therapy can be done by a trained therapist, parents or even a camp counsellor. Play therapy, unlike ABA therapy, is often used with children who are of a neurotypical development. Reasons this population may need play therapy may be to process early childhood abuse and trauma, or cope with early childhood mental health issues. Play therapy is also implemented on a wide-scale in certain elementary classroom settings for the purpose of encouraging advanced infant and early childhood development.


Below we list some unique features of both ABA and Play therapy:


ABA Therapy

  • Governed by determinism, empiricism, parsimony, objectivism, replication, philosophical doubt and experimentation

  • Procedures include shaping, chaining, fading, behavior contracts, token economy, PECS, SCERTS

  • Does not believe feelings and emotions account for an explanation of behaviour

  • Done only by formally trained therapists

  • More expensive than play therapy

  • Heavy focus on autism

  • Measures progress systematically and formally

  • Is heavily rooted in conceptual and systematic interventions often documented in journals

  • Research based

  • Less creative and more calculated than play therapy

  • Focuses on behavior and skills that impact life outcomes rather than isolated interpersonal skills


Play Therapy

  • Implemented by Occupational Therapists, parents, teachers, shadows, baby sitters, psychologists, social workers

  • Uses toys, games and gadgets of amusement to teach critical developmental milestones and interpersonal skills

  • All procedures include and focus on entertaining the child with a toy or game while honing skills, receiving critical information through body language, the child’s relationship with the toys or apparatus, bonding (for parents) as well as providing relief from distress.

  • Less structured than ABA therapy

  • May focus on abuse recovery, separation anxiety, motor skills coordination, muscular strengthening, emotional connection and reception as well as educational development

  • Can be formal and informal

  • May have physiological goals

  • More popular than ABA Therapy and used on a wider scale

  • Has older historical roots than ABA

  • Serves multiples purposes simultaneously


This is where we will stop for today, but we advise parents who may be wondering whether one is better than the other, to not neglect either as they both serve individual and unique purposes for children with special needs. We also admonish parents with young, neurotypical children to implement informal play therapy as a strategy to sharpen their skills and cement foundational developmental milestones.


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Thanks for reading!!



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