A topic came up in an autism support group I frequent. A mother said that her son’s Early Intervention therapist was trying to get him to stop “repetitive play,” and play more the way typical children do. The mom didn’t see any harm in repetitive play, but the therapist claimed her son was doing the same thing over and over because he was “stuck,” not because he was enjoying himself.
Fortunately, dozens of autistic adults were there to say “NOPE” to the therapist’s opinion. But let’s go into this in more detail.
First: autistic people do sometimes get stuck. I will talk about that more, in the next post. But that’s not usually the reason for repetitive play! We — (I’m going to put myself in the “autistic” category for this discussion, despite my lack of diagnosis, because this is one area where I strongly identify with how autistic people act versus how typical people behave) — we enjoy repetitive play. We like it. We’re having fun. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Here are some other common objections from the medical approach:
1) “Autistic kids won’t learn how to do things if they don’t mimic adults in their play.”
Typical little kids pretend to be baking cookies or selling ice cream or driving a truck or taking care of a baby doll. Are these things actually giving them real-world skills? I doubt it. Even if they are serving as practice, there’s a lot of evidence that autistic people, unlike neurotypicals, learn more by observing than by doing. A typical kid learns to write the alphabet by trying over and over. An autistic kid learns the alphabet by watching someone else write it over and over.
2) “If autistic kids don’t engage in pretend play, they don’t develop an imagination.”
I don’t even know how to start explaining how wrong this is. It’s true that some autistic people don’t have much interest in “imagination.” They prefer documentaries to sitcoms, only read nonfiction, and hate creative writing exercises. They might also be great at math and science, and less likely to be fooled into believing rumors and urban legends. Other autistic people have great imaginations. But they don’t always like “pretend” play either.
When I was in first grade, I spent every recess walking around aimlessly on tufty patches of grass in the school yard. At least, that’s all anyone looking at me would see. In my head, I was navigating a path along treacherous rocks, narrowly avoiding flows of lava.
When I was in my early teens, I spent many an afternoon playing in my backyard. An outside observer would have seen me pacing in circles, occasionally picking a leaf or blade of grass, toying with it, shredding it, and discarding it. I don’t know what my face showed. I often mumbled under my breath. It definitely didn’t look like “playing pretend.” In my mind, I was Orphan Annie planning my daring escape from the evil orphanage, rescuing my younger sisters at midnight. I was designing a thrilling game that had to be played in a room with reduced gravity. I had found a magic pearl that granted three wishes and I had to decide what they were. I was aboard the Starship Enterprise, exploring strange new worlds.
In short, I was using my imagination like crazy. It was just all inside my head.
There were times when I played “pretend” with another friend or two (never larger groups though). We sometimes pretended to be characters from our favorite books — I remember endless arguments over who got to be the adventurous, mischievous “Laura” (from the “Little House” series) and who would get stuck being the boring, well-behaved “Mary.” My little brother and I went on quests to find dragons or fairies or pirate treasure.
But most of my play was alone, and it probably didn’t look much like play to most people. Repetitive actions– spinning tops, sorting marbles, lining up blocks or crayons or toy cars– is soothing, and helps me drift away in my mind to magical worlds. Performing simple sensory actions over and over is like a mantra, helping me relax and focus.
Repetitive play can overlap with stimming, which is also not a bad thing. Both can help us reach a “flow” state. Neurotypical people may find the same experience when practicing an instrument, rehearsing dance steps, practicing a swim stroke. You do the same thing again and again until it feels effortless, until it feels like part of you, and it’s a wonderful feeling. Crafters and hobbyists know this feeling– the ability to lose yourself in the rhythm of knitting or weaving or turning wood on a lathe or polishing rocks (one of my own current obsessions).
When I can feel like that by lining up crayons in rainbow order, why would I even want to bother driving a little fake car around a little fake town, mimicking what I can see any time in reality or in a video? Some autistic kids do enjoy that kind of play, of course– model-building is a common autistic hobby. For those people, there’s a joy in recreating something in detail. Different things appeal to different people, and that’s just as true for autistic people as anyone else.
Play is what someone does for enjoyment. There is no “wrong way to play” (unless your idea of fun involves running into traffic or kicking people or something that is dangerous for other reasons). I hate when therapists use the term “play” for trying to make autistic children interact with toys the way neurotypical kids do. That’s not play, because it’s not fun. It’s work. If you’re going to teach it, at least be honest that you’re teaching a task called “pretending to be normal,” and it’s hard for your client, and they aren’t having fun, even if you teach them that smiling is part of the activity.
The one time an autistic kid needs help learning how to play is if they express that they want to join into the games their peers are playing but can’t figure out how. If they are interesting in this kind of play, you can coach them on turn-taking and game rules and so on. But only if they show an interest.
Otherwise, please just let them be. Let them interact with the world in the way that brings them joy. Let them relax and have fun. That’s what play is for.