What is PlayConnect?

PlayConnect works within a Supported Playgroup Model  and is offerednationally through State and Territory Organisations(STO). The program provides a free and accessible service to children aged 0-6 who present with either a formal ASD diagnosis, or ASD-like characteristics, and their families.

The Program began in 2008 with funding through the Helping Children with Autism (HCWA) package. It is directed towards addressing the need for support and services for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) or ASD like characteristics. Over the past nine years, Playgroup Australia has worked in partnership with the State and Territory Playgroup Organisations to deliver PlayConnect Playgroups nationally. In this time the PlayConnect program has supported thousands of families across hundreds of sites in all States and Territories.

In many of these cases support has been provided from the very beginnings of the ASD journey, prior to any diagnosis, and before any other support was available.

PlayConnect Playgroups are designed to build the capacity and community connectedness of children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics through a playgroup experience. The program was developed with the intention of fostering relationships between real people,and a sense of belonging across communities.

PlayConnect aims to provide:

  • Play support to children with ASD orASD-like characteristics through:
    • Flexible and responsive play-based learning and socialisation opportunities for children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics to positively impact their social and emotional skills and learning
    • Transition support for children with ASD and ASD-like characteristics into other forms of community participation, early intervention, education or early childhood settings
  • Support to parents,carers and families of children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics through:
    • Increasing opportunities to foster social networks and support each other
    • Increasing the capacity of parents and carers to manage their child’s ASD behaviours and effectively engage in their families
    • Providing information for parents and carers around their child’s developmental needs, early intervention services and other relevant community services
  • Support to communities and build awareness of ASD and ASD-like characteristics through:
    • Increasng community understanding and awareness of ASD and ASD-like characteristics.
    • Enhancing the capacity of relevant community groups to support children with ASD and ASD-like characteristics, and their families
    • Complementing rather than duplicating the services delivered by other agencies including federal, state and local governments.

How is PlayConnect different?

PlayConnect is unique in that it is not a therapeutic early intervention program, but rather an informal support service for both families and children. It provides access to a normative Playgroup experience where children can play together and provides an informal social networking opportunity for parents and families to learn, share and provide mutual support.

There are several elements that identify them as both separate and distinct from community playgroups:

  • PlayConnect groups are facilitated. That is, they are led and delivered by a facilitator. In most instances the facilitator is a trained early childhood educator, social worker or disability support worker with the support of State and Territory Playgroup Organisations and Playgroups Australia. The role of the Facilitator is multifaceted. First, they plan and provide developmentally appropriate play activities for participants, specifically children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics. These activities are inclusive and likely to change to be highly responsive to the particular children that attend that group. Second, to support families by: facilitating social networks and the sharing of experiences; providing access to relevant information and resources while providing opportunities to identify development concerns and access to appropriate referral services.
  • Within PlayConnect sessions, play activities are tailored to the needs of children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics. Children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics often struggle with elements of traditional play, whether that be sensory sensitivities, engaging in imaginative or collaborative play, or effectively controlling impulses and behaviour to participate in a meaningful way.
  • PlayConnect sessions are specifically targeted at families and children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics.
  • PlayConnect groups offer a safe and supportive environment accepting of ASD and ASD-like characteristics. In this space, children with ASD will not be judged for their behaviours (typical or atypical) but will have the opportunity to socialise with other children ‘like them’.
  • PlayConnect encourages the whole family to participate in the sessions and siblings and the extended family are invited to come along and partake in the informal discussions and play. This can help extended family to better understand ASD, how it impacts the family and what support they can provide. This increased understanding helps to strengthen family relationships that are extremely important to parents of children with additional needs.

Why PlayConnect?

  • Offers a ‘soft entry’ point for families to get information and support
  • Provided as a free service nationally, across hundreds of sites and supporting thousands of families
  • Offers parents a support group to share stories and foster a sense of belonging
  • Offers sensory play for children with ASD and ASD-like symptoms
  • Encourages all family members to join in including siblings and extended family
  • Non-clinical and informal support
  • Welcoming and inclusive

PlayConnect is, at its heart, a whole of family support program for those families in most need. The underlying value of PlayConnect is apparent in the safe and supportive environment, the appropriate play activities, the sense of welcome and belonging, but most importantly through the connections that involved families make with each other in their very difficult and often isolating journeys.

What happens at PlayConnect?

PlayConnect Playgroups are structured sessions that provide play-based experiences designed to promote early childhood development and community connectedness. In many ways, PlayConnect groups are just like traditional playgroups. Families come together, build relationships and foster their children’s development through play. Sessions typically include indoor and outdoor play, group time, morning tea and transition strategies to support and motivate children between activities.

The specific activities and content within each section is developed and implemented by the PlayConnect Facilitator who uses the children’s interests and abilities to determine activities that will encourage group participation and development through play. Activities and experiences will take into consideration ways to support and build on each child’s cognitive, creative, imaginative, motor, and social/ emotional and communication skills.

PlayConnect sessions usually run for two hours and within that time, parents and carers are encouraged to interact and engage with their children in all planned activities. This encourages parents to engage in their child’s development by providing one-on-one support, modelling behaviour and praising outcomes. This also builds capacity for parents, influencing their practices outside of the PlayConnect environment.

Subsequent sections of this Toolkit will look more closely at how a PlayConnect group is delivered and provide some ideas for activities.

Why PlayConnect

The PlayConnect program was developed with the intention of fostering a sense of belonging and connectedness across communities through:

  • Play based learning and socialisation opportunities for childrenwith ASD or ASD like characteristics to improve their social and emotional skills
  • The formation of social networksamong families facing the challenges of ASD
  • Improving parenting capacity to manage their child’s ASD behaviours and their subsequent ability to engage in their community
  • Providing parents with information related to their ASD child’s development
  • Ensuringa‘softentry’pointforfamilies to get information andsupport
  • Creatingasafeplaceforparents,carersand children to foster a sense of
  • Encouragingallfamilymemberstojoinin including siblings and extended
  • Non-clinical and informal

Benefits of PlayConnect

There are many real and tangible benefits of the PlayConnect program for children and families with ASD or ASD-like characteristics. This program creates a peer-support environment for families and carers and provides play experiences that are responsive to the needs of target children with ASD or ASD like characteristics.

Perhaps some of the most significant benefits for participants include:

  • Appropriate play-based learning opportunities for children with ASD providing developmental support in all early childhood domains including communication, language and social/emotional skills
  • Capacity building of families to reduce socialisolation, build group cohesion and develop confidence to transition into other appropriate services
  • Connecting parents and carers with others to build social supports and make connections with their wider community
  • The delivery of informal social support that is accessible and affordable and less stigmatising that formal health services
  • Reducing barriers to access, particularly given that service is provided free of charge to end users
  • The provision of early support for families proceeding down the formal diagnostic pathway but not yet eligible to access ASD-specific services
  • The provision of a pathway to engagement with specialist early intervention
  • Enabling parents to access resources, network and connect with other parents facing similar challenges, engage in their community and develop their leadership and organisation skills.

How is PlayConnect managed?

The PlayConnect program is funded by the Department of Social Services (DSS) under the Helping Children with Autism (HCWA) initiative. The program is coordinated by Playgroup Australia in partnership with State and Territory Playgroups Organisations (STOs).

At a national level, Playgroup Australia provides national advocacy, quality assurance, risk management guidelines and ongoing coordination and support for the PlayConnect program. At a State and Territory level, STOs support establishment of PlayConnect sites within their State or Territory, as well as providing referrals and information about the program to agencies, potential families and the general community. STOs are also responsible for providing ongoing training, supervision and resourcing to the PlayConnect groups. This includes developing networks and partnerships to support PlayConnect groups and Facilitators, establishing referral pathways and facilitating access to resources and information for PlayConnect Facilitators and families.