Autistic play styles


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Autistic play styles

A narrative analysis of over 40 autobiographies by autistic people to understand the inner experience of play from the autistic perspective.

Autistic play styles

Summary

(Conn, C. 2015) – A narrative approach to understanding play in autistic people. Current observations of play are adult directed, or comparative observations of autistic children interacting with non-autistic children. Conn uses a narrative approach to analyse the autobiographies of over 40 autistic people to understand the inner experience of play from the autistic perspective.

A general summary of the autistic play experience

Alternative consciousness – Processes the world in smaller, detailed moments before conceptualising the whole. Processing and understanding the components that make up the whole are generally processed through sensory self-exploration rather than a shared experience.

Play experiences in greater detail

  • Sensory based play – Sensory engagement with objects, people and space
    • The environment itself providing pleasurable heightened sensory reactions. The play moments described in Conn’s paper, such as watching sand pour through fingers, the sound of gravel, looking through coloured glass and the sound of flour and water paster being stirred all describe pleasurable experiences that come through sensory experiences.
    • Elements of detail oriented, hyper-focus from the sensory experience are also described, such as getting lost in wall paper, staring through the cat fur and looking at a friend’s hair
    • Using toys (toys being a conceptual notion of anything a child plays with in a pleasurable way) to provide the sensory experience, such as a spinning coin, watching the light reflect of bubbles, the moving parts in a washing machine, the sound of a marble running through a PVC pipe
    • The intensity of the sensory experience with objects can feel intimate, like a friendship/relationship. Often described as the first sense of connectedness outside of themselves
    • The physical sense of the body in space and the connection to the sensory experience. Running, climbing, spinning, being upside-down, finding and using tight confined spaces. Playing with how the environment itself changes as they change their orientation. The sense of bodily wholeness “all of me was a united entity”.
    • Nature as a place to recharge and escape social demands. Often described as a safe, calm and constant with rhythm and predictability.
    • Alternative sensory experiences such as synesthia are also played with, depending on the presentation, touching and playing with sounds and colours, forcing a response.
    • There is a caution on becoming too lost in the sensory play experience as the emotional intensity becomes too overwhelming
  • Pretend Play – How autistic children use imaginary play
    • Often contains aspects of hyper reality, and literalness in interpretation of the game
    • An appreciation for the orderliness of things, and predictability or routines as an exploration of life as an autistic person. “An attempt to arrange my external world according to the same system as my inner world”
    • Aligned with the shared culture of collecting, sorting, visually organising and tidying up objects. Creating order in chaos, sharing sense of orderliness of inner sense of world with others
    • “Vivid remembering”, recalling and reproducing stories of the past with vivid accuracy. Conn (2015) writes accounts of accurate echolalic sounds, detailed models, mental recreation of raceways, and elaborate stories. Used to enhance individual play or play with others
  • Socialising and discovering playmates – When they find someone to play with what does this play look like? Conn describes this almost as a second stage of development in play, initially other people are a confusion of “empty faces” and “arms and legs” that frighten them and wear them out.
    • Other people are often experienced as a physical or sensory presence. Getting to know them requires the same intense physical and sensory exploration of the play partner to allow the shared presence of space and sense of safety.
    • There are several descriptions of different ways this intense exploration looks, but it always occurs in a typically autistic analytical fashion, focusing on the microscopic detail before seeing the whole person. Similar intensity to special interest (climb inside and build a home)
    • Often find friendships with other children that are considered odd or quirky who sits outside the typical peer groups.
    • Friends are often described as other people on the same wavelength, who share similar interests, thinking style and atunement
    • Age, social status and gender are rarely considerations in play partner
    • Shared stims (Sinclair) the sharing of similar sensory regulating activities and interactions that bring equal joy and pleasure to both participants
    • Playmates can sometimes be imaginary, or characters from books or film but feel very real to the child.
    • An intense friendship with an animal is also a common experience. The autistic often taking on the role of the animal and imitating the animals movement, sound and interactions. This mimicry will evoke a sense of joy and connection with the animal, allowing the autistic to feel they are making a connection with the animal.
    • Play mates are often described as tolerant, flexible, able to adapt to the need for repetition, realness and be ok in quiet spaces.
    • Adults are often chosen as play partner because they are able to play through discussions on serious topics that the child has intense interest in and will find younger or same aged peers too immature in their conversation style

General discussion

The autistic experience is often described as being fragmented, made of microscopic detail before coming together as a whole concept. Conn describes an alternative narrative to autistic play styles, as part of an over all autistic culture, one that is profoundly experienced and emotionally felt. Unlike the PNT, who’s play narrative focuses on play as a part of society and culture, autistic play narrative begins from individualistic the sensory exploration experienced within the play scenario, this is then shared with the play partner. If partner is attuned to the autistic individual the play partners .

Visual story

Image 1

  • Play is how children learn about themselves, their environment and the people in it.
  • It is vital in developing cognitive, physical and social awareness as well as concepts of identity and developing relationships.
  • There is a misconception that autistic children do not play, or that they do not play “properly”.
  • The truth is, autistic children play and explore their environment in a different way to the dominant neurotype.

But, what does autistic play look like?

Image 2 – Discovering the details to understand the whole

  • Discovery and learning for people with autistic neurology is based on understanding the smallest detail. We are detail oriented learners.
  • We focus on the microscopic detail first, before developing a concept of the bigger picture.
  • Information is rarely generalised because, when you focus on how something tastes, smells, looks or feels, everything you encounter is different and unique.

Image 3 – Sensory explorers

  • We are sensory explorers first, and prioritise the discovery and understanding the sensory experience. 
  • We can find immense pleasure and enjoyment in losing ourselves in the sensory experience.
  • Discovering how our bodies move, how it feels to spin, jump, run or sway. Staying in the moment or repeating it to understand how it changes every aspect of our body.
  • Being integrated and whole with our body.
  • Exploring the textures, tastes,  smells around us, how the light shifts and moves throughout the day.
  • Using toys, such as a spinning coin, to elicit a sensory response.

Image 4 – Using toys

  • Exploring the sensory world through playing with toys.
  • Anything can become a toy when being explored from a sensory perspective.
  • Using toys to provide their own sensory experience, such as a spinning coin, watching the light reflect of bubbles, the moving parts in a washing machine, the sound of a marble running through a PVC pipe.
  • Toys can be used to create order, repetition or routine. Immense enjoyment found in lining-up, arranging, and sorting into categories.

Image 5 – Imaginitive Play

  • Imaginative play can be a way to arrange the outside world to match the inside one.
  • Often contains aspects of hyper reality, and literalness in the interpretation of the game
  • An appreciation for the orderliness of things, and predictability or routines as an exploration of life as an autistic person.
  • Aligned with the shared culture of collecting, sorting, visually organising and tidying up objects.
  • Vivid remembering”, recalling and reproducing stories, scenes or sounds of the past with vivid accuracy. Used to enhance individual play or play with others

Image 6 – Discovering play partners

  • Play partners often require the same intensity of sensory exploration before sharing space.
  • Often form friendships with other people that are considered odd or quirky, but share similar interests, thinking style and atunement
  • Sharing stims or similar sensory regulating activities and interactions that bring equal joy and pleasure to both participants
  • Playmates can sometimes be imaginary, or characters from books or film but feel very real to the child.
  • Play mates are not determined by age, race or gender

Citation

Reference – Carmel Conn (2015) ‘Sensory highs’, ‘vivid rememberings’ and ‘interactive stimming’: children’s play cultures and experiences of friendship in autistic autobiographies, Disability & Society, 30:8, 1192-1206, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2015.1081094

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