What is “proper” play really?

How many of us have been guilty of using the phrase ” do it this way”? 

In whatever context you may be thinking of right now (work, home, school, playtime etc), most of us at some point have used those words to tell someone that they should be doing something your way. Because your way is the right way, yes? I hold my hands up to this, I too am guilty. 

So when a child with Autism enters our predominantly neurotypical world, they have expectations and rules placed on them pretty much from the word go. Milestones, self care, play. You name it, there’s a way you “should” do it.

This afternoon I watched as kiddo began to explore our afternoon activity which just happened to be play-dough. He explored the texture, the colour and the shape as I would expect any child to do. Then I started to build things because to me that’s what came naturally. Kiddo instantly stopped me. This was not what came naturally to him. He very happily started collecting up all the play-dough and began to shove it quite vigorously into the pots it came in. “Oh”, I thought, “he’s had enough already”. This was no surprise to me as kiddo’s attention span usually averages about a minute. But then I realised, he wasn’t clearing up, he was playing. He joyfully filled each pot, lined them up, looked at them with a huge grin on his face, and then emptied them all. Repeat. This went on for a good half an hour. I watched him with such interested. The feel of the play-dough, the repetition, the certainty. It ticked every box for him and he was LOVING it. To me this was nothing but a tidy up routine, but to him it was pure entertainment, playtime at its best.

My mind began to wonder while kiddo undertook his rather hypnotic play routine. Who are we to decided what “proper” play is? Who are we to decided what “normal” play is? Surely play is what the individual finds entertaining and fulfilling is it not? Whether or not we as a neurotypical nation think it’s typical or expected, it’s still play. I’ve heard parents of children with autism often say their kids don’t play. Sure, not how we would expect a child to play, but they are still playing! They are exploring what makes their mind feel good, they are learning how to relax, they are using their imagination in the way it was intended to be used. Is it what the government lay out in their Early Years targets? No it isn’t. And quite frankly, who cares.

About a year ago, kiddo’s Dad and I had the opportunity to go on a fantastic course called “Hannen More Than Words”. It was a very new course over here in the UK which had originated in Canada. And it blew our minds. Up until this point we had struggled so badly to get kiddo to engage with us in play. He didn’t focus, he didn’t show any interest. Why? Because the games and toys we wanted him to play with were totally boring to him. So we learnt how to follow his lead. And unsurprisingly a lot of the play he wanted to initiate was totally boring to us. But we didn’t care, the look of excitement on his face when we entered his world was worth every moment. To this day I feel that that course absolutely saved our relationship with our son. It gave us a way in, some common ground. The relationship slowly became two way.

Many children with Autism also have sensory difficulties which greatly affect their play. They can’t tolerate fast and exciting games, or maybe that’s the only way they play and they can’t focus at all. I’m now completely open minded as to what constitutes play in our house. It could be an afternoon of play-dough, a trip to the swings, or maybe lying face down on the floor making funny noises or just a walk in the buggy looking at trees.

The point is, play is whatever you want it to be. Don’t be constrained by ideals or expectations. Take a lead from your child and you will be amazed at how your relationship flourishes at a rate you can’t keep up with!

Thanks for reading,


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