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.”

Helping your child make a smooth start to the new school year

There seems to be a lot of information available for parents about the big transitions that children face at the start of the school year, such as starting Primary or Secondary school. But for many children already at school, starting the new school year in a new grade with a new teacher is an equally big event, and one that we can help to prepare them for.

With the end of the school year fast approaching, it is a good time to think about how to help your child get ready for the changes that come with moving up a grade in school.

Get familiar with the rooms and teachers.

While it is unlikely that the school will know exactly who your child will have as a teacher and what room they will be in before the very end of the school year, most schools have classrooms dedicated to specific year levels and regular teachers that teach those grades. Ask your child’s current teacher to provide opportunities for your child to visit higher grades in informal ways, such as running errands or participating in joint class activities, so they have a chance to get to know the classrooms and teachers and will hopefully feel more familiar with the staff and surroundings when it’s time to move up a grade.

Talk to your child about changes that are going to occur in their new grade and reassure them that there will be a lot of similarities to their current year level.

Talk about what to expect.

Many teachers start to talk to their classes about expectations for the year ahead to try and motivate children to work harder or behave better. However, this can result in increased anxiety and unrealistic expectations of the workload. Statements like “you will be in Grade 6 next year, so you need to start setting an example for the younger students,’ or ‘the work is going to be harder in Grade 3 so you need to pay attention,” can make going up a year level feel like a huge jump in responsibility and work that many children don’t feel ready for. Talk to your child about changes that are going to occur in their new grade and reassure them that there will be a lot of similarities to their current year level. For example, teachers are not going to give students really hard work at the beginning of a new grade, they will start where their students finished the year before and slowly build on their skills and knowledge. This will help your child have a more realistic and less scary picture of what the year ahead will look like.

Help your child learn to embrace change.

It is usual for children to be uncertain about the changes that moving up a grade will bring. Concerns about whether they will have friends in their class, or if their teacher will be nice, are common, and may lead to anxiety and a reluctance to attend school or challenging behavior at home. To help reduce their uncertainty, encourage your child to think about the good things that moving up a grade will bring, and support them to reflect on situations where they have experienced change in a positive way (e.g. new clothes, birthdays, holidays, etc.). It is also important to let your child know that it is normal to be a bit nervous or uncertain about change, but you will be there to help them work things out and they will be alright.

Preparing your child for their transition to a new grade will help to make the move a more positive one not just for your child, but for your family as a whole.