“Appropriate” Play

If you are the parent of or work with autistic children, no doubt you’ve heard the term “appropriate play”. Starting from toddler-hood you hear warnings that you need to teach “appropriate play”, that only certain kinds of play are okay and other kinds, like lining up objects or watching wheels spin, are inappropriate. These kinds of play are said to be dangerous, isolating, “red flags”, wrong. Children who like playing this way will be said to have “poor play skills” or “score low” in play skills.

This is, quite simply, a load of garbage. The whole concept of scoring play is ludicrous. What does that even mean? Let’s think about the definition of play; what is “play”? The Merriam-Webster definition is: “recreational activity; especially:  the spontaneous activity of children”. I think of playing as a form of leisure, which is what people do when they’re not working or focusing on a task or obligation, right? Its sole purpose is to bring enjoyment to the person doing it.

How, then, can we say that an autistic child’s way of relaxing and seeking happiness is wrong? This kind of thinking is based on the idea that there is one “normal” type of brain and that all other brains are “wrong”. This is ableism – discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities. In our family we embrace the Neurodiversity Paradigm. The Neurodiversity Paradigm states that there is natural variation in people’s neurologies/brains and that this should be accepted and valued. There is no single “correct” type of neurology upon which all others should be measured, just as there is no single correct type of gender, ethnicity, or race.

In professional evaluations our son, H, scores low in play skills. It’s unfathomable to me that a bunch of people can observe my beautiful, happy child and come away with a list of deficits and things they think he is doing wrong.

As a baby, H mouthed and explored toys. He watched wheels spin, turned toys upside down to look at the screws on the bottom, and tried to see how they worked. He really enjoyed musical toys, toys with lights, and anything that spun.

As a toddler, he lined up objects or arranged them in groups all around the room. Sometimes he played with toys the way they were intended to be played with but lots of times he didn’t. He would make patterns with legos or toy silverware. Other times it seemed that he was creating arrangements of objects spaced out perfectly into a design all over the couch or the floor.

[Image shows a toddler sorting Megablocks by color into three different containers. One bowl has red blocks, one has yellow, and one has blue blocks.]

One of his absolute favorite things was to unpack a case of water bottles and move them from one side of the room to the other. There was a period of time where he loved holding a soft object in one hand and a hard object in another and holding them above his head and shaking them to see how that looked. All of these things made him happy. Some calmed him, some made him really excited.

[Image shows 19 bottles of water arranged across the floor.]

During the time that he was getting services through Early Intervention, I was constantly being told by therapists that worked with us that I should be interrupting this type of play. That we needed to be careful because he could become isolated and he needed to learn how to play the “right” way. There were warnings that if we “let” him hold 2 crayons in one hand that he might develop a “bad habit” of always wanting to have 2 crayons and that we should take them away and not let him do that. I was told that if he was lining up cars that I should turn one the wrong way and mess up his pattern. If he was lining up animals, start showing him how he *should* be playing with them instead by making the animals pretend to eat or sleep or talk to each other. As you can imagine, this is really annoying for the person trying to play! I chose not to listen to that kind of advice and to play alongside him, his way, instead.

This type of repetitive playing or organizing objects or exploring how things work is nothing to fear. It can be very self soothing. It might be a way to organize their environment that makes sense to them in a world that is not set up for autistic people. It may be a way to have enjoyable sensory experiences or a way to tune into an activity and filter out sensory stimuli. It can be a form of self care that can be used into adulthood as a way to unwind. It is also just *fun*, which, after all, is the entire point of play.

Autistic children may play in unique ways. This is okay. It is unnecessary and unkind to deliberately interrupt a child’s play to try to make them do it “right”. Unfortunately, autistic people already experience so much pressure to interact and play and socialize and behave the same way that the neuromajority does, despite the personal cost. The effort it takes just to get through the day in a world that feels so intense and that isn’t designed for your brain can be debilitating. Being told that your way of playing, acting, *being* is wrong is devastating psychologically. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if neurotypical people extended a hand and met autistic people halfway instead of constantly asking them to change to make other people more comfortable? Accept and value the fact that people are different. Maybe even join in for their favorite activities once in awhile.

halfway watermark

We have always encouraged H’s interests and favorite ways of playing. I find ways to be a part of the activity or just hang out with him and watch while he plays. I do show him all different ways to play with things by playing with them myself, just like how I model all different kinds of language by using it myself. Sometimes he loves my ideas and other times he isn’t interested and wants to do his own thing. Above all, he knows he is loved and accepted for who he is and that home is a safe place where he can unwind and be himself, among the people and things he loves.

As a parent, if you’re surrounded by professionals that are spouting the panic narrative that children must learn appropriate play skills during this tiny toddler window of opportunity “or else”, it’s easy to get swept into a panic every time your child starts lining things up or doing whatever their favorite activity is. This can harm the parent-child relationship and cause stress at home, the place where a family is supposed to find repose and comfort to be themselves. Instead, take a deep breath and remember that this type of play is okay and not harmful. Sit back and marvel at how amazing it is that your beautiful child can become so engrossed in an activity that brings them joy. Try playing what they are – you might find it enjoyable, too! If not, that’s okay. Everyone plays differently! 😉

-Stay tuned for an upcoming post about how H’s play has evolved and changed over the years and how acceptance looks in our family.-


9 thoughts on ““Appropriate” Play

  1. Reblogged this on Sophiedora and commented:
    Play is play. Every child plays their own way whether neurotypical or not … how sad parents are being told to make sure their children are playing ‘appropriately’. Sure play is how children learn but it’s also how they have fun and grow! Grownups please stop trying to limit children.


  2. Is so much silly fun is fun. And things like sorting and being able to line stuff up is good skills anyway. The only play that maybe needs try help is throwing things because not want hurt or break stuff or people.


    • I read a lot of blogs by adult autistics and sorting and lining up can also be trying to have control/order/predictability over their very unpredictable life. It is soothing and calming to them.
      Another thing to think about to your throwing things response is perhaps they are sensory seeking crashing or the heavy muscle work.
      Sometimes those behaviors we wish to stop we could instead find d a way to give them that in a less damaging environment, like throwing heavy medicine balls in a safe room, or out side. Perhaps a punching gloves and gloves, or punching their mattress, could be a more appropriate response. Perhaps building big towers of domino’s, wooden blocks and letting them crash could be encouraged if they want to crash things. Addressing their sensory needs is very important.


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