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Diversity in autistic play: Autistic adults’ experiences

Emma Pritchard, Carmen de Lemos, Katie Howard, and Jenny Gibson

Why did we do this research?  

Most research on autistic play focuses on difficulties that autistic people may have when playing. It also typically focuses on an understanding of play that is based on what non-autistic people think play should be like.  

In this research, we wanted to take a more balanced, neurodiversity-informed approach to understanding autistic play. This means understanding autistic play in terms of differences, strengths and difficulties rather than simply deficits. We also wanted to focus on what autistic people say about their play. We think this is important as greater awareness and understanding of authentic autistic play can help support autistic people’s wellbeing.  

We were interested in how autistic adults experience play, as well as how they think their play is different to non-autistic play.  

How did we do it?  

We decided to interview autistic people about their play. Autistic and non-autistic people helped us design the study and interview questions. We asked for feedback on our interview questions using an online forum and then made changes to the questions based on this. We interviewed 22 autistic adults about their play now or when they were younger. We used a qualitative method of analysis to pick out important aspects of people’s experiences and views. 

What did we find?  

Our paper highlights the different ways in which autistic adults like to play. For example, we identify circumstances in which autistic adults prefer solitary play and social play. More specifically, autistic adults in our study preferred solitary play when they were tired or had limited resources. Some people also told us they may prefer like-minded, fellow autistics as social play partners. 

In this work, we call attention to the importance of understanding that different people like to play in different ways. This is important if autistic people are to feel like they can play in ways that feel authentic to them. We encourage people to understand, accept and encourage authentic autistic play to help support autistic people’s wellbeing.  

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

Read more from Emma about an understanding of autistic play from a strengths-based or neurodiversity-informed perspective in this blog.