There is no right way to play: How a recent article in The Conversation missed the point

The topic of Autistic Play is something that I am really passionate about.

Phrases such as “There is no right way to play” have become more prominent in recent years as advocates from the Autistic community have argued that the play of Autistic children should be accepted as valid and legitimate rather than being seen as yet another skill deficit that needs to be addressed.

So, you can imagine my joy at seeing an article in The Conversation titled “Don’t forget play – 3 questions can help balance fun with supports and therapy for autistic children.” 

The article describes the new National Guidelines for working with Autistic children by the Autism CRC and highlights the power of play-based supports and the need for a balance between therapy and play.

This in itself is fantastic. I am a fan of the new guidelines and can see the potential for a big shift to neurodiversity affirming supports for Autistic children.

What the authors missed, however, is the true essence of play and the potential benefits of allowing all children, including Autistic children, to play in whatever way they choose.

Play, by definition, is widely considered to be chosen and led by the child, internally guided by thoughts and ideas, enjoyable and engaged in while in an alert but regulated / non stressed state. There are also many different types of play including construction, cause and effect, rough and tumble, imaginative, messy / sensory, and role play.

While it is widely recognised that during early childhood, Autistic individuals often display differences in the development of pretend play when compared with their neurotypical peers, there is actually very little information available about what natural play development looks like in Autistic children. 

Many assumptions are made about the intention and motivation of Autistic children based on what their play looks like according to neurotypical standards, instead of considering internal processes and play from an Autistic point of view. Just because an Autistic child’s play looks simple or repetitive from the outside, doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful to the individual and beneficial to their development.

Autobiographical reports and limited research suggest that Autistic children engage in more sensory based play, tend to base play scripts on experiences and memories, and engage in social play differently to their neurotypical peers. But there is no evidence to suggest that this play is in any way less important for the child’s personal development than the play of other children. Why then, is there still a focus on Autistic children having difficulty playing in ‘traditional’ ways instead of focussing on giving them the freedom to play their way.

What message are we sending Autistic children when we are insisting that their play isn’t right and they need to be taught to do it differently?

I was pleased to see that the authors did acknowledge that Autistic adults are challenging the way clinicians work with Autistic children and encouraging them to accept each child’s way of playing. But they didn’t expand this observation to highlight its importance both in therapy and when a child has an opportunity for free play, and so the point could easily be missed.

If we are truly going to suggest that practitioners work with Autistic children in ways that “honour their childhood”, then we need to accept Autistic play as the meaningful and joyful activity that it is. 


A link to the original article from The Conversation:

Don’t forget play – 3 questions can help balance fun with supports and therapy for autistic children.

For more discussion of Autistic play see:

The Little Black Duck

”Don’t change Autistic Play. Join in.”

“Autistic Play is Appropriate Play.”