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New article on diversity in autistic play

A new journal article from the PEDAL team takes a neurodiversity-informed approach to understanding autistic play and focuses on what autistic people say about their play.

A new study published this month, by PEDAL researchers Emma Pritchard-Rowe and Professor Jenny Gibson, and colleagues Carmen de Lemos and Katie Howard, highlights the importance of centering autistic people’s perspectives when it comes to understanding how autistic people play.  

Existing research on autistic play has typically focused on ‘deficits’ in autistic people’s play, and is often based on comparisons to neurotypical ‘norms’. By interviewing 22 autistic adults, this study instead captures a picture of autistic play that acknowledges difficulties, differences and strengths.  

The researchers describe this as a neurodiversity-informed approach, which allows for a more individualised understanding of the different ways in which autistic people play. Such an approach could promote a wider understanding and acceptance of autistic people’s different play preferences and experiences – which, in turn, could have a positive, affirmative impact on autistic people’s long-term wellbeing.  

Centring autistic voices, the researchers emphasise, is key to ensuring that research on autistic play is both relevant to autistic people and able to meaningfully improve their lives. The study did this by using a design that was informed by a consultation process involving autistic adults, parents of autistic people, and professionals who work closely with autistic people on a regular basis. A small subset of this group also helped to design the questions used in the semi-structured interviews. In these interviews, participants were asked to talk about their current experiences of play as autistic adults and their experiences of play during childhood, as well as how they perceive their play as being different to that of non-autistic people.  

By analysing the transcripts from the interviews, the researchers gained insights into the different circumstances in which these autistic people preferred solitary play and social play. The study showed the importance of embracing how different people like to play in different ways. For example, most of the participants preferred solitary play and described playing by themselves as being relaxing and having recuperative functions. Their responses also suggested that solitary play can be especially useful to autistic people when they are tired or have limited resources, as the demands of playing with others can be exhausting.  

Generally, the study suggests that many autistic people do enjoy social play. Several participants in this study noted the benefits of social play: that it provides opportunities both for bonding with others and for the development of social skills. The social play described by some participants in this research could look different to that of non-autistic people, and was more akin to what play researchers call parallel play – with participants indicating that autistic social play involves playing in close proximity to others but without the requirement to directly interact with them. 

 One participant summarised the dual nature of social play, as being both rewarding and draining for autistic people, as a “double-edged sword” 

 “When I’m feeling overwhelmed what I need at that moment is something repetitive and comforting, so at that time I need solitary play […] But when I’m feeling more resourceful and have some energy to spare, then I definitely would prefer social play. I think that’s very valuable to me , just as way of not feeling lonely really and [it] gives me a sense of self-worth …so I think , I definitely enjoy social play more but I need to be in the right frame of mind to be able to tolerate it , and definitely afterwards I’m very drained and often I will ruminate afterwards about how I came across and that kind of  thing. So it’s a bit of a double-edged sword”. 

These findings suggest that autistic adults’ play preferences around solitary and social play are often dependent on their resources or needs at specific moments. 

Another key difference highlighted by some of the autistic adult participants was the prevalence of ‘flow’ in their play experiences. Flow describes a state of intense focus on a play activity for an extended period of time, involving an altered sense of the passage of time. For instance, one participant commented: “[Play is] generally more intense with us, because we do lose track of time.”  

As with their experiences of social play, participants’ responses suggest that engaging in flow can have both advantages and disadvantages. Flow can help with relaxation, which can contribute to improving autistic people’s overall wellbeing. However, it can also have a negative impact on aspects of autistic people’s everyday living – such as reducing their amount of sleep.  

Overall, this study emphasises the importance of taking an individual approach to understanding play – particularly autistic play. Providing supportive environments where autistic people’s play preferences are respected – allowing them to play solitarily if they choose to, for example – can help autistic people feel affirmed and positive about how they play. The researchers conclude that supporting authentic autistic play, in all of its forms, could help reduce factors that lead to stigma against autistic people, and contribute towards improving autistic people’s long-term mental health and wellbeing.  

The full open-access research paper published in Autism in Adulthood can be found here.

Read a summary of the research in our resources hub.

Click here to find out more about our Play, Communication & Neurodiversity team.