Play and the autistic child

[image: ‘Play and the autistic child’ in white text against a background of small logs, pine cones and a croquet set, arranged by a small child on faded wood decking]
I’ve often come across posts and discussions on social media by parents of autistic children worried about their child’s apparent inability to play. They describe their child having no interest in toys, preferring to ‘stim’ with random objects, ‘disappear into their own world’ or run around, bounce or spin. Such parents are usually looking for ways to help their child play with toys ‘properly’. They want to teach their children how to play like other children. ‘Proper’ play is heralded as a gateway to developing social and communication skills.

Strangely (to me), the concern is rarely that the child is unhappy, in fact the child is almost always happy while engaging in their chosen activities. As a parent of an autistic child who has had long periods not very happy at all, I cherish the happy moments. I can’t imagine anything being more important than happiness. We learn best when we are happy and we stay healthier, emotionally and physically, when we are happy. Life is better when we are happy and allowed to do the things which bring us pleasure.

We all enter parenthood with an idea of the sort of childhood we want to create for our children. This often includes a desire to reproduce the good bits of our own childhoods and improve on the bad bits. We remember the toys we played with the games we played. We remember what made us happy and also what we thought, at the time, would make us more happy.

Play is important. For me, play is pretty much anything we do as people to bring pleasure. It’s the things we do for ourselves, not because we have to or are being rewarded for our participation. Play might be with toys or not, it might be visible or it might be entirely in our imaginations, it might be solitary or it might be with or alongside other people.

Play is many things to many people, but we can help our children best if we consider what play means to us and, perhaps more importantly, what play means for our children.

Whenever I hear a parent ask “How do I help my autistic child play properly?” I wonder what they mean. Do they mean play according to the instructions? This makes sense if it’s a group playing a board game, but less sense if it’s playing with dolls, or a train set, or a play castle or Lego. Children do, of course, learn through play but, surely, it’s the sense of discovery and using toys creatively, going off-piste, which creates most fun and most learning opportunities?

Do they mean play in the same way as their typically developing peers? An autistic child is quite likely to have different cognitive, sensory and perceptual needs, motivations and interests than a typically developing child. Teaching a child a set routine to play with a particular toy or playset seems more akin to choreography than play.

Parents need to think about why they consider the neurotypical way the best way. Just because ‘everyone else’ plays like this doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do it differently. Our children need to be encouraged and supported to be comfortable and confident in their choices, not trained to fit in and act normal.

Do they mean playing alone or playing socially? Autistic children often seem to be held to higher standards than their neurotypical peers. If they play alone too much they are discouraged for fear of missing out on social interaction and communication opportunities. If they can’t play alone they are seen as unsettled, demanding and needy.

All children have preferences. When a typical teen hides away in their room, parents might sigh and despair, but it’s accepted as ‘normal’. When an autistic teen hides away in their room it’s seen as worryisome and something which must be addressed so they don’t ‘withdraw further’. When a typical toddler plays quietly in their room looking at books the parents pat themselves on the back at having produced such a self-directed, independent, easy, clever child. When an autistic toddler plays quietly in their room looking at books the parents worry about obsessive behaviours and withdrawal.

Typical children are praised and rewarded for their friendliness, their ability to take the lead in group work and their expression of emotions. Autistic children are watched with eagle eyes to check they aren’t being too friendly, too bossy or too exuberant. Autistic children are often held up against idealised and unattainable expectations of ‘normal’ and ‘proper’, expectations which many typical kids would fail to meet.

Play is a fundamental part of our development but it should not be a tick box exercise. Play is part of our human instinct to imagine, wonder, discover, manipulate and feel our way through the world. Typical children seem allowed to just play, whilst autistic children’s play must be directed and purposeful. Does everything needs to be a measurable learning opportunity?

When a child builds their own model with Lego instead of following the instructions we should be proud of their creativity. When an autistic toddler re-enacts their favourite TV programme with their TV character toys and uses echolalia to voice their characters, they are playing. They are engaging with a world they’ve chosen, that they like and enjoy. They are remembering, imagining, moving and talking. These are pretty useful skills.

When I hear parents talking about how their child needs to learn to play ‘properly’ to develop their language, social and communication skills I wonder about the opportunities the parent is missing. Instead of steering the autistic child in a direction which aligns with their typical peers, wouldn’t it be better to steer our expectations and encourage development in the direction our kids have chosen? It is much easier to swim with the tide.

Some parents go to great lengths to teach their autistic children to play in a preferred way. Is it worth the effort? It might help their children ‘fit in’ more easily with their peers at nursery or school, make them less noticeably different. I am not sure this is a good enough reason. ‘Fitting in’ and ‘performing normal’ take their toll on us autistic people, and being different should not be seen as a bad thing.

I do understand why parents can feel a need to support and encourage their autistic child’s progress along typical lines (I have a post coming soon which explores this) but I also wonder if these often huge efforts could be better utilised. Instead of vast swathes of time teaching a child how to play, how about leaving them to play in their own way. Use the energy and motivation and whatever compliance you can garner to focus on skills which will be of use for a lifetime.

Don’t sweat over puzzles, stacking, sorting and matching. Don’t worry if your child spins the wheels on their Hot Wheels cars or sorts them by colour instead of using the perfectly constructed (by you) track. Ditto for the castle, doll’s house and pirate ship you lovingly put together. Instead, think about targeting your child’s capacity for more directed learning into lifeskills. Swimming, road safety, pet care, learning a musical instrument, managing money, cooking and gardening, these are worth far more over the course of a lifetime than how to play properly with a play set.

I worried a lot about my son’s ability to play when he was in the early years of primary school. I pushed for school to put more support in place for him to access playground games and support his social development, and I worried endlessly about his preference to be apart from the other children. I came to realise though that we were wasting effort and increasing his anxiety by encouraging him to take part in something he had no real interest in. He preferred to stay in class and read or draw, or visit the nature area for some peace and quiet.

Getting the right balance between demands and downtime (playtime) is a fundamental part of our family life. It means trying not to waste precious demand capacity on transient skills. It makes more sense to use his (very limited) capacity for demands on skills which will serve him in the future. I haven’t always got this right but I try to keep an eye on the future when deciding what’s important.

At some point I came to the conclusion that in adulthood he would have little use for the skills he needed to survive the anarchic cacophony of the school playground. As an adult he would be able to choose how to spend his breaks and leisure time. The skills he was likely to need in adulthood would probably not be those he could learn in the playground.

It helps that I can look back on my own childhood and track which skills have been most useful. I hated the playground, it was where I felt most alien, not understanding the rules which everyone else just knew. I tried to create characters and roles for my dolls because that’s what other girls did, but it didn’t come naturally and if left alone, I would use my dolls as models for my emerging dress-making skills. I am ever-grateful that I was taught to sew at a very young age as needlecrafts have become my go-to winding down activity.

Since my own diagnosis I have rediscovered stimming. I have realised how crochet and knitting serve as stimming activities, settling me when I try to think. I now have my own fidget toys to play with when I need to. A good fiddle toy makes me happy. Sometimes I use them to help me concentrate and reduce my anxiety, perhaps in a meeting or when making a tricky phone call. Other times I use them just for the sheer enjoyment. There doesn’t have to be a reason.

Neurotypical parents worry far too much about stimming. I realise that some stim behaviours are harmful and need careful addressing, ideally by diversion and not aversion. I also realise that some parents worry their child stims too much, though what’s too much for one family might be normal for another.

It’s often when stimming that my overloaded brain sorts itself out, filtering and processing all the recently input information. Everything becomes clearer and I feel more focused. We are so often overwhelmed by the social and sensory world surrounding us that we need time out. Children need that time out too, time to just be, no demands, no expectations, just to play, however they choose.


Play doesn’t have to be with toys

Play doesn’t have to be with people

Play doesn’t have to make sense

Play doesn’t have to have a purpose

Play doesn’t have to be a learning experience

Play isn’t just for children 🙂