Autistic Play is Appropriate Play

“Does your child play appropriately with their toys?”

Apparently, this is a common question asked of parents if their kid is being assessed for autism. In this context playing “appropriately” means “playing with toys exactly as a neurotypical child would play with their toys.” That, and it is often pushed very hard for parents to make “the appropriate use of toys” some sort of developmental goal or try to get their child to use their toys a specific way by using behavior manipulating “therapies.”

The thing is (and I’m going to be very blunt here), this sort of thinking is totally fallacious. It’s another version of the “it’s different, therefore it’s bad” and “it’s autistic, therefore it’s bad” lines of reasoning. The bias here also shows when difference automatically has the negative adjective “inappropriate” attached to it.

I’m sorry, but who gets to make the distinction that any deviation in standard ways of playing is “inappropriate?” Dear readers, I’m here to tell you that autistic play is appropriate play.

Putting toys in lines is appropriate play.

Spinning the wheels of a matchbox car instead of rolling them across the floor is appropriate play.

Organizing stuffed animals instead of having pretend tea parties with them is appropriate play.

Interest in tactile sensory play with a tub of sand instead of pretend battles with action figures is appropriate play.

autistic play
A line of small toy cars goes from left to right on a white carpeted floor. Black text reads “Autistic Play is Appropriate”

When I was but a wee youngling you probably could have made me a poster child for autistic play. I lined up my toys. I engaged with my environment in an overtly exploratory sensory fashion, staring into lights and such. I far preferred to make little dioramas (or “set ups” as I would refer to them) with rubber dinosaurs than engage in what you average psychologist would call “imaginative play.” I have previously written a little bit about autistic forms of play, but not on this blog, rather in a piece I wrote for Love and Autism, readable by clicking here. In it, I wrote a little bit about why many autistic people play in different ways and also about the importance of embracing differences in autistic styles of play. I said:

“…recently I’ve been seeing quite a bit on Twitter and other places of people who are talking about the “importance” of making sure that autistic children “play the right way” or are “interested in the correct things.”

Despite the fact that they aren’t autistic themselves, they insist that autistic children shouldn’t be allowed to line up their toys or to have specific interests in narrow areas. The argument for this seems to be nothing more than “it’s not what allistic children do, therefore it must be wrong and hurting their development.” 

This sort of thinking is rooted in the idea that what is typical is automatically correct for all people, that deviations from the norm are bad. However, it completely ignores the purpose that these repetitive actions have for autistic people.

Honestly, though, what difference does it make if a kid is lining up their toys? I would argue that there really is no objective way to play, and lining up toys probably plays an important role in helping said child process the world. 

We need to stop pathologizing repetitive play. I say, be happy when someone lines up their toys, repeats their words, flaps their hands, or focuses deeply on their interests. 

There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong about these just because they don’t fit the neurotypical standard.”

Play is actually developmentally important. Play during childhood has an important role in cognitive development. It does more than simply provide kids with entertainment. It is therefore incredibly important that natural play is not disrupted or attempted to be “restructured” so it more aligns with standard neurotypical play. Autistic people follow different developmental trajectories and relate to the world differently both socially and on a sensory level, so it should be expected that autistic people would find enjoyment in forms of play that better suit our neurology. There is absolutely no evidence that I could find that not playing within a very specific and narrow neurotypical standard of play is detrimental to neurological development. In fact the opposite may be true, as it is well known that unstructured play is important to child development and there is no reason to think this isn’t also true for autistic people. Autistic children play differently because autistic people have different cognitive needs, and so a different style of play provides the different inputs and experiences needed for the autistic brain. The unstructured play style of many autistics represents our different needs, and should not be meddled with. Our style of play also likely represents a way for us to cope with a loud, confusing, and disorderly world that does not automatically meet our needs, and so meddling with or trying to change our play style can also mean trying to get rid of an important coping mechanism.

A bunch of various children’s toys sitting up against a wooden background. Imaged licensed for fair use.

So many young autistic kids have their world micromanaged and overanalyzed and compared to a standard of “normality” that most non-autistic kids wouldn’t even meet. Therapists tell them everything they do naturally is wrong, and their ways of playing are “corrected” and their play time is monitored (because apparently not showing enough interest in a toy is “bad” but also showing too much interest in a toy is “also bad”), and they are put through intensive therapy batteries where every attempt is made to get them to put on an act and do X activity with X toy every time because that’s the way it’s “supposed” to be done, any other way isn’t appropriate. Honestly, I don’t blame parents who initially put their kids through this because this model of “early intervention” is pushed so hard on many scared and confused people by apparent “professionals” who are telling them that this is what’s best for their child. But that’s why I’m here, to give the counter narrative that natural autistic play is appropriate play, and there is no basis to say that just because it is different means that it is “inappropriate.” Parents, please allow your autistic child (or children) to have truly unstructured playtime where they are allowed to play within and explore the worlds on the terms their own neurologies set. Trying to force some neurotypical model of play will only frustrate and stress the heck out of your kid in the short term and maybe even deprive them of necessary developmental needs in the long run. If an activity is safe and enjoyed by the child, then it is appropriate. Autistic play is appropriate play.

And as a final aside, I’d add that just because an autistic child does not appear to be engaging in typical “imaginative play” does not mean that they lack an imagination or are not using their imagination. Autistic people are not simply “broken” versions of non-autistic people, we have different neurologies and see the world in entirely different ways. It is often erroneously concluded that autistic children lack imagination because they way they play is not observed to be imaginative, but this fails to account for the fact that what the child sees is not what a non-autistic person sees. It is important to think with an autistic perspective, rather than interpreting through a non-autistic lens, to truly understand ad best support autistic people.

Finally, blog update: Thanks for reading! I will likely not write another major blog post (other than a little thing for Autistic Pride Day on June 18th) for the next 2-3 weeks and probably won’t be on the internet much at all between June 20th and June 27th. I have a very exciting experience planned that I have been looking forward to for a long time, and I will be sure to update everyone when I get back!

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