Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than organising collective events across the UK National Play Day 2020 is focusing on children’s rights to play at home. We’re increasingly being told about the importance of play, and there’s copious research into why this is, however when you’re Autistic and/or the parent of an Autistic child, most sentences which include the word “play” in relation to your child are telling you about how they’re “not playing correctly,” or they’re “only doing parallel play rather than cooperative play,” all heading to the climactic “we need to teach your child how to play.”
Numerous dictionary definitions state that when people play they’re spending time doing enjoyable things; doing things for pleasure; doing things for fun. So how on earth can anyone be doing it wrong? National Play Day state that:
Playing is fun and is central to children’s happiness Playing helps children’s physical, mental and emotional health and well-being Playing boosts children’s resilience, enabling them to cope with stress, anxiety and challenges Playing supports children to develop confidence, creativity and problem-solving skills Playing contributes to children’s learning and development.
Nowhere does it state that playing is prescriptive and must follow a set pattern. Neither does it state that “proper play” means pretending to drive a toy car down an imaginary road rather than lining it up, while also meaning that a banana is also a phone and not always just food. I’d planned to write an article about the differences between non-Autistic and Autistic play, citing research as well as my own experiences as an Autistic parent of Neurodivergent children, however when I started to do search for things to back up (or disprove – I’m not shy about being told I was wrong) what my (and others I know) experiences are, all I could find were research documents pertaining to non-Autistic children, and hundreds of articles about how to “make” your Autistic child play like everyone else. At this point the plan went out of the window – I could say I threw my toys out of the pram, but that wouldn’t be very appropriate of me, would it? Instead I want to use this as a springboard to start a discussion:
How did you play as an Autistic child?
How do you play as an Autistic adult?
What are your Autistic child’s favourite games?
Before going further, I just need to say it loudly for the people at the back: Forcing Autistic children to “play appropriately” is a contradiction of play. You are making them work. Play is important for so many reasons. It helps children practice skills they’ll need later in life, and current pedagogy uses play with younger children as the main basis of teaching: Learning Through Play seems to be the tagline of most Foundation Phase (KS1) departments. Play is so important that it’s article 31 in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child which is enshrined in law in Wales.
Among the research, common themes of play being important for recreation and relaxation dominate the results, so why when we have Autistic children – who are often autonomy seekers in a world where they have to work hard to conform – do we turn their play into another therapy/learning opportunity/social skills lesson? Why can’t they play the way they want? Why must we steal what little autonomy and self-regulation they have? Play is also described as a cathartic activity in which people (particularly children) express their feelings, get rid of negative emotions, and replace them with positive ones. Do you think that by telling a child that they can’t solo-spin on the playground because they should be playing tag with the rest of the class is cathartic for them? Are they going to be able to express their feelings? Or are they having to ignore their needs for the sake of your tick box exercise?
Instead of changing the Autistic’s method of playing, join them! Spin, jump, flap, line up toys, play a couple of hours of Minecraft, whatever it is that they want to do. The main focus should be on having fun.
References National Play Day (2020), Home Page, [online]. Available at https://www.playday.org.uk/ (Accessed 03/08/2020) Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries (2020), Play [Verb], [online]. Available at https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/play_1 (Accessed 03/08/2020)