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.”

How could you not know? – My journey to Autism diagnosis as an adult.

How could you not know you are Autistic?

Such a seemingly simple question. But the answer for me and many other people diagnosed as Autistic in adulthood is far from simple.

So, at the age of 45 – with my own Autistic children who are almost adults themselves, and after working with Autistic children and families for over 15 years – here I am with an official diagnosis of Autism.

It came with a sense of relief and comfort, a feeling that it really fit, but it did not come quickly or easily. This was a journey of discovery that was years in the making.

I was lucky to grow up in a loving and supportive family, who accepted me as I was and still do, something I know many people are unable to say. But I have always felt different – a sense of distance and awkwardness with my peers that has followed me throughout my childhood and into adulthood.

There were times where I was labelled ‘bossy,’ ‘oversensitive,’ and a ‘know-it-all,’ and times when I have said and done things that made me want to curl up and hide with embarrassment. But there have also been times when I have made connections and found people who made me feel like I belonged, and opportunities and experiences that, looking back, may not have happened without my differences.

When my youngest son was diagnosed Autistic 13 years ago, it did not occur to me that I might also be Neurodivergent. I think like many parents of Autistic children, when their child receives a diagnosis, they wonder who in their family the child may take after. And that was me – looking over my family tree and identifying several ‘quirky’ characters but not looking within.

Only those who know me well would know of some of the challenges I have faced throughout my life – depression and anxiety, self-doubt and loneliness – challenges that many in the Autistic community face every day. And while these are certainly challenges faced by the wider community too, I can now see that my experiences have been shaped by my neurology.

Why then, with a history of social challenges, sensory sensitivities and feeling different, and a career working with the Autistic community, has it taken me so long to recognise that I am Autistic?

The only answer I can come up with to this question is that I wasn’t looking for it.

I have also been privileged to work with and support the Autistic community over many years and will continue to do so, but had not considered that perhaps my affinity for my clients and my ability to understand and support them might be linked to my own neurology.

Consequently, it was only over the last few years that I became more aware of my differences, and began to think that I was in fact neurodivergent. With that realisation, and the encouragement of family and friends, I pursued a formal assessment, and was finally diagnosed as Autistic in March this year.

Now, as I start a new journey to understand what being Autistic means to me, and to find my authentic self, I encourage any adults out there that think they may be neurodivergent to embrace their differences, and explore their neurology and what it means for them.

Autism acceptance is not just about accepting the differences we might see in the Autistic community. For some of us it is also about accepting and understanding our Autistic selves.