JASPER: Therapy through Play for Children with Autism


It’s summertime. A time when children’s laughter fills neighborhoods, parks and backyards throughout the province, as they play with their friends and use their imagination to go on countless adventures. Did you know, though, that this time of play is not just all about fun and games? Children actually learn through play. Through their play and interactions with toys they are able to learn critically important basic communication skills.

But what about when a child has trouble socializing, communicating and even playing with toys? If a child hasn’t learned to play, how can parents teach them other valuable skills such as speech and communication? No doubt, it can be tough on the child as well as the family in understanding how the child is feeling and how to be better aware of their needs. This can be the situation for children with autism and their families.

Jan Young Guerra, Eastern Health’s manager of Direct Home and Autism Services

Jan Young Guerra, Eastern Health’s manager of Direct Home and Autism Services

Recognizing this as a challenge, Eastern Health now offers a program to children with autism that incorporates play as a way to enhance their fundamental development.

JASPER, or Joint Attention Symbolic Play Engagement Regulation, is a new program which originated in the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) that Eastern Health has brought to Newfoundland and Labrador. This intervention is a short-term approach, which targets the foundations of social-communication: joint attention, imitation and play.

“JASPER revolves around play! Essentially, it is a therapy through play for children with autism,” says Jan Young Guerra, Manager of Direct Home and Autism Services. “We are delighted, ecstatic and proud to be the first province to start JASPER for children with autism.”

The initiative began in 2016, in the interest of expanding the program’s resources to best meet the diversified, individual needs of our children with autism. At that time, 12 clinicians across the province received interventionist training supervised by UCLA. Now around 50 additional clinicians are in training across Newfoundland and Labrador.

JASPER starts with an assessment of the child. Clinicians conduct space assessments, which typically run for about 15 minutes, where they play with a kit of toys such as dolls, doll furniture, safari busses and animal toys. The clinician monitors the child’s eye contact, their interactions with the toys and their engagement. Following the assessment, the clinician is then able to determine the level of play that is required to begin with the child’s JASPER intervention and sessions.

Toys typically used in a JASPER session

Toys typically used in a JASPER session

Here’s how a session works:

The clinicians go into the home of the child, set up their equipment (i.e. toys!) and then follow the child’s lead. A session runs between 30-60 minutes and each session comes with certain goals that the clinician tries to reach with the child, such as: attending to the activity/toy, sharing interest, showing what they like, learning and building on the play level.

“The children learn certain skills during these sessions that can piggy back into other areas of their life,’’ explains  Jan. “The skills developed through these play-based sessions, help aid the children in other areas of their life and social settings, or just being more improved at communicating what they need or want.”

54 children are actively receiving JASPER treatment. These children either receive two sessions per week over three months or one play session per week over six months.

Reports from parents and professionals highlight not only the positive gains the children have made, but also the cascading effects on the family as a whole. A clinician shares one family’s story:

A pre-assessment for JASPER typically takes about 1.5 hours. For one child in the program, it took a total of 2.5 hours, to complete the pre-assessment, due to extreme escape and avoidance behaviour. This means that the child had great difficulties in terms of wanting to be around people and was more comfortable being alone. The child was only able to sit for 30 seconds at a time which was a bit of a challenge for the trainer in completing the assessment. After completing 24 JASPER sessions, we went back and reassessed the child and were able to complete the assessment in 1.5 hours with no signs of escape of avoidance behaviour. The child was well engaged, took the lead in play time, and was able to use their words when needing a break. The most rewarding part was seeing the huge smile on the parent’s face when the final assessment was done. They were beyond proud to see such an improvement in their child in a short period of three months.”

Kanachi Angadi is the parent of a child in the JASPER program and only has good things to say about her son’s progress. “JASPER is a great program and has definitely increased my son’s joint attention, play skills and overall attention span,” she says. “We are so pleased to see him generalize his skills to everyday life scenarios. It’s definitely worth the efforts!”

Kanachi’s son during a JASPER session

Kanachi’s son during a JASPER session

Eastern Health is now looking at incorporating JASPER into the existing autism treatment model with the intensive Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) home therapy program or the parent implemented model

“The opportunity for Eastern Health to implement JASPER has meant that children with autism in the province have the opportunity to access to the latest and very best evidence-based treatment,” shares Jan. “The children are making tremendous gains in the shortest time period that I have ever known in my 30 years working in this field.  The clinicians and parents report seeing the children learn and acquire skills (communication, attention and play) right before their eyes!”

With so much great progress already made with the JASPER program, the team is eager to continue to share in the successes of their clients and provide this treatment to more children with autism and their families. As Jan and her team say, “We’re just getting started!” ■

This story was written by Samantha Grandy, communication co-operative student, with support from Jan Young Guerra, Manager of Direct Home and Autism Services, and Karla Ford and Melissa MacDonald, JASPER trainees with Eastern Health.

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