Autistic Play is Beautiful

The Neurodivergent Doctor

I soon learned Autistic development is not “wrong”. Autistic brain development, like other neurodivergences, is just on a different path.

For neurodiversity celebration week, lets talk about the beauty of Autistic play.

When my first kid was identified as Autistic, the usual diagnostic criteria were followed. I was interviewed about how my kid communicated, interacted, played, and did daily activities. I filled out milestone forms. The focus was on what my kid couldn’t do, that typically developing kids the same age can do. This is because a diagnosis of autism means a person has to have: social communication difficulties, and restrictive, repetitive patterns of interest. A diagnosis of autism also means these things cause difficulty to the person, such that they need support to manage day to day life. It's the medical model of disability.

An Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) was completed with my kid. ADOS is a standardised autism assessment, where an assessor plays and interacts with a child. They do a set of activities designed to draw out autistic features. The assessor codes and scores what the child does, to see if it matches with autism. I watched my kid’s assessment. I could see the play was adorable, but not typical. The feedback was all about what my kid’s play was lacking. So much was lacking! Which made me feel sad and worried.

I felt a fool, for not noticing my kid's play was so lacking and incorrect. For a while I couldn’t enjoy watching my kid play. It made me feel guilty I hadn’t taught my kid to play “properly”, and for not getting help sooner.

What did I do next? I dove into deep, hyperfocussed research about autism (thanks, neurodivergent hyperfocus!). I discovered stories, videos, blogs, podcasts, social media and research by the Autistic and neurodivergent community. I soon learned Autistic development is not “wrong”. Autistic brain development, like other neurodivergences, is just on a different path.

Neuro = brain

Divergent = different direction

Autistic children progress superbly along their path of development, depending on:

  • How their environment and caregivers support them
  • How safe they feel
  • The opportunities they are given
  • Whether their autonomy is supported – to follow their curiosity and intent, or to set boundaries when they feel uncomfortable
  • Whether they have loving, warm relationships with caregivers who meet their attachment needs

This is the social model of disability.

My neurodivergent family's play could be described as restricted, repetitive patterns of interest, lacking neurotypical communication and social interaction. Our play is also beautiful, fun, rich with connection and Autistic identity. Including:

  • Parallel play. Childhood developmental milestones teach us kids move past parallel play (playing alongside other kids, not together), and into group play, after toddlerhood. We are warned if kids don't learn to play collaboratively they might have a developmental problem. But I still love parallel play! Group situations are a massive effort thanks to my slower information processing, sensory sensitivities and communication differences. It's the same for my kids. But doing my own thing, in my own space, near my family, enjoying one another’s company - that is bliss. Like watching our screens, drawing, reading, or lego.
Parallel play - reading books

  • Arranging and sorting items in appealing ways.
Arrangement - spoons and drink bottles

Arrangement - empty contact lense containers

  • Noticing perfection in the details and colours around us.

Captivated by a balloon

Awed by Christmas Tree lights

  • Getting our proprioceptive and deep pressure needs met – lying on the floor, squeezes, squashes, bouncing and swinging
Floor cuddles

Trampoline squashes

Now, when I watch my kids playing Autistically I feel pride and delight. You can see for yourself why! How do you love to play?

Note: This blog has been edited to fit the Square Peg Round Whole podcast website.

Original blog:

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