Does the way autistic people play need to be fixed?

Not according to a team of researchers at Cambridge University.

Many people believe negative stereotypes about autistic play that stem from studying us autists by looking for our “deficits” when compared to non-autistic people. To counter this bias against autistic people and how we play, these researchers decided to examine what autistic play really looks like. They decided to ask autistic people, approaching them from a neurodiversity perspective: That is, starting from the principle that there is nothing wrong or deficient about playing in ways that differ from neurotypical play.

Today I am talking with Emma Pritchard-Rowe, lead researcher, and Jenny Gibson, Pritchard-Rowe’s research supervisor, about the Diversity in Play study.

Maxfield Sparrow (MS): Hi! It’s so great to talk with both of you! Can you start by telling me a little bit about how your team chose to study the ways Autistic people play?

Emma Pritchard-Rowe (EP-R): Thank you for the opportunity! Before we carried out the study, we consulted various stakeholders for their views on what our research should focus on. These stakeholders included autistic adults, parents of autistic people, and professionals working with autistic people. They identified autistic play and more specifically, autistic views on the ways in which autistic play is different to non-autistic play, as a key research area that we should focus on.

Jenny Gibson (JG): I’ve worked on autistic play for a long time. I did my doctoral research on play over 12 years ago. At that time my work was definitely oriented towards a more deficit-focused model but through my observations of neurodivergent children at play, I began to see a more joyfully idiosyncratic way of playing and wanted to find out more. Play in general is a fascinating topic to me—why do so many animals play? Why is it so hard to define play? Why is it that something that one person finds engaging and playful is an absolute nightmare for another person? Can patterns of play be used to help diagnose autism or other types of neurodivergence? The project Emma is working on fits into the broader work my academic team is doing to answer these questions.

MS: I love it when a researcher pays so much attention to what they are studying that they begin to move past that deficit-focus we all get taught in the beginning! To me, that is a sign of a truly scientific orientation. Being able to shift your paradigm in response to the data you are observing is responsibility science. I love hearing how much you’ve both listened to autistic people. What other steps did your team take to make sure that your research was autistic-informed?

EP-R: In addition to what I’ve already said, some of the autistic stakeholders who we consulted also helped to design the interviews that participants in our study would take part in. We felt this would make sure that the interview questions cover what is important to autistic people and make sure we were adapting the interviews so that they were accessible to autistic people taking part in the study.

MS: It sounds like autistic people were involved in every stage of development. That’s wonderful to hear! In your findings, you mention the concept of “flow” in play experiences. Could you explain what a “flow state” means in this context and why it’s important for autistic people to experience flow?

EP-R: By this, we mean a state involving intense focus during play, for a long time. For example, one of our participants talked about being ‘‘in the zone’’ when they were playing. We called this flow because what participants were describing fitted into Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow.” In our study, we found that flow was experienced as relaxing by autistic adults. This means it could be important for supporting autistic people’s wellbeing. However, we also found that autistic adults experienced negative aspects of flow on aspects of everyday life. This included flow limiting their sleep. So whilst flow is important, it is also important to be aware that it can have its downsides too.

JG: We hope that better understanding of flow and its upsides and downsides can empower autistic people to manage their relaxation and wellbeing through play.

MS: I can relate to both the upside and downside of experiencing flow. Like your subjects, I get so much joy, and stress recovery, when I’m able to just get lost in something I love. And so many times I have looked up and realized I should have gone to bed hours earlier! It’s so helpful to have these autistic experiences studied with scientific rigor and documented. What stereotypes and misconceptions about Autistic play did your study uncover? What pre-existing ideas about autistic play did your study verify?

JG: I think it’s often a stereotype that autistic play is “non-social” or solitary. But our participants told us that social play can look different for autistic people. Participants described how engaging in an activity alongside another person could be socially fulfilling. They also told us they appreciated social benefits from play, such as feeling connected or finding it a good way to build up social skills. Some participants told us they preferred to play with other autistic people, however, others told us that in some circumstances having autistics together could be like “two repelling magnets.” For me, this underscores the importance of recognising individual preferences and realising autistic play is always going to be a multi-faceted construct.

EP-R: As well as what Jenny said in relation to social and solitary play, I think that there’s often a stereotype around autistic people not being able to play imaginatively. However, our study highlights that autistic people do engage in imaginative play, such as role-play with other people.

MS: I think that’s so important, recognizing that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all for autistic people. I’ve read a lot of studies that talk about the double empathy problem and describe autistic people and allistic (not autistic) people as a sort of mix of oil and water, implying that things get confusing when the two mix—but there is a homogeneity between people of the same neurotype.

Your work has documented something I’ve experienced in my own life: sometimes autistic people can be “oil and water” with each other, too! That’s something I’d like to see researchers looking into down the road, as our understanding of autistic social dynamics is more refined by future study. Why do autistic people both feel more comfortable interacting with people of similar neurotype and feel social repulsion in some situations or pairings? Your findings give me much to think about.

Considering how often autistic people are excluded from other studies, I really appreciated that you didn’t exclude people for having co-occurring conditions. I also appreciated the extra effort you went through to make sure you not only recorded the most common answers but also did not exclude the unique responses from consideration. Your thoroughness will pay off when future research is built upon the foundations you are forging now. I did notice, however, that your study participants were relatively homogenous: mostly white and mostly college educated. Are there plans for future research that will recruit a more diverse group of participants?

JG: We noticed this about our sample too. We’re in the process of developing a funding application to work on neurodivergent play in a more diverse group, including children and those who don’t use language as a main mode of communication. Linguistic, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity will also be an important part of our research.

MS: That’s so exciting! I’m especially excited about your plans to study play in autistic people who don’t use language as heavily in communication. I’m excited about the new developments I’ve been seeing in methods of studying non-speaking and minimally-speaking autistic people and eager to see what results you report in your own work.

If the world only learns one thing from your study, what do you most hope that thing would be?

EP-R: I would like people to understand that many autistic people like to play socially, as it can help them connect with others.

JG: I hope that people will recognise that solitary or stimmy play is not a bad thing and can have an important function in supporting relaxation and recuperation.

MS: Thank you so much for talking with me today, Emma Pritchard-Rowe and Jenny Gibson. It’s been a genuine pleasure!

Toddler's hand reaching for toy trains on a wooden track, seen from overhead.
Image by Lukas from Pixabay