As part of my PhD, I am studying how autistic adults experience and view their play. You can find out more about our work here.
The main idea of this study is to challenge deficit-focused understandings of autistic play, and to move towards an understanding of autistic play from a strengths-based or neurodiversity-informed perspective.
Deficit-focussed descriptions of autistic play
Descriptions of autistic play have tended to focus on deficits, as in the following description of a hypothetical child, named John:
John has difficulty playing with others. He cannot share his imaginative play with his friends. He only plays by himself, and repeatedly lines up his toys.
As is often the case when autistic people’s play is discussed, John’s preferences for play are usually framed in a negative way because they differ from what are seen as ‘normal’ behaviours that neurotypical people commonly show. They also tend to be based on other people’s (typically non-autistic) observations and assessment of autistic people’s play.
Trying to understand and measure areas where people are struggling or having difficulties is important as these can often form an important part of diagnostic assessments and help inform the kinds of support people are offered. However, the often-exclusive focus on deficits is problematic. Autistic people have told us that language is powerful. Being repeatedly told about ‘difficulties’ can be deflating and disempowering. This is harmful to the wellbeing and mental health of autistic people and their caregivers. More widely, these descriptions can contribute to stigma and marginalisation.
Another problem is that, by focusing solely on difficulties, we currently have an unbalanced view of autistic play. We are missing out on gaining a more complete understanding of autistic play, in terms of the different ways autistic people may play, as well as accounting for the diverse strengths autistic people have.
Neurodiversity-informed and strength-based approaches
The problems I have mentioned are reflected in autism research more widely and relate to the recent rise of the neurodiversity paradigm. Neurodiversity refers to the variation of the brain and mind within our species. It includes everyone, including neurodivergent and neurotypical people. As a form of neurodivergence, autism can be defined in terms of strengths, differences, and difficulties.
Given the focus on strengths as well as difficulties, the neurodiversity paradigm is compatible with a strengths-based approach to understanding, assessing, and supporting autistic people. As research has mainly focused on deficits, shifting the focus to differences and strengths can help re-address the balance and give a more complete understanding of different aspects of autism and reduce the use and impact of deficit-focused language. Adopting a neurodiversity-informed or strengths-based approach can also make assessment a more positive experience and can help better inform support.
Another vital aspect of a neurodiversity-informed or strengths-based approach is ensuring we’re capturing the views of autistic people themselves. This is important not only for understanding their views on different topics but also in deciding what research gets done and how it gets done. In assessment and support contexts, this means placing the autistic person and their caregivers (where appropriate) at the centre of the process, focusing on what is important to them.
Recently, there has been a wider shift in how different aspects of autism have been described, how research is being done, and the ways in which this research is being driven by autistic views. More research is adopting a neurodiversity-informed or strengths-based approach. For example, autistic communication ‘deficits’ have been reframed as a difficulty autistic and non-autistic people have in interacting with each other, known as the double empathy problem. Here it is recognised that autistic and non-autistic people may have different ways of communicating and autistic communication may be different, but not deficient.
Reframing our understanding of autistic play
Although this wider shift is promising, there is a lack of research adopting a neurodiversity-informed or strengths-based approach to understanding autistic play. An important part of this is to learn about experiences of play from autistic people themselves.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, this forms a key part of my PhD research. I am currently using interviews conducted with autistic adults to help us learn more about how they experience and view their play.
One key aim of this study is to understand autistic views on how autistic play is different to non-autistic play. Importantly, we asked autistic people, parents, and professionals for their views on this area of research and about how the research gets done.
We aim to challenge the deficit-focus by highlighting autistic views and the different ways autistic people experience play. In the future this may influence how practitioners can consider autistic play as part of diagnostic assessments or support from a neurodiversity-informed or strengths-based perspective.
If you found this post interesting, you might like to read more by looking at the links at the bottom of this page.
University of Cambridge PhD Student