How autistic children relate to each other during play
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Play for autistic children is a vital path to social learning that is easily misunderstood

By Ella Paldam and , | November 2021 

Autistic children like to play together and many can do it. Neurotypical people often miss the visual and hand signals that children use to invite togetherness.

Watching three autistic children constructing together, you might jump to some of the stereotypes about such young people. At first sight, they do not seem to be playing together. They are not making eye contact, nor do they talk to each other much. They seem to be playing in parallel. And they can become frustrated easily.

However, the three are, in fact, playing nicely together. They are communicating, though not through back-and-forth verbal dialogue. Each closely follows the others’ hand movements in the construction process, and these hand actions are like taking turns in a conversation. Bursts of songs signal togetherness. One child hums the famous “Halleluiah” section of “The Messiah,” while another follows by humming, in falsetto, a less well-known part of the oratorio. One child rolls the die and declares in imitation of Fortnite, “I am the One.” Another child does something with her hands. “Wow,” exclaims her friend.

This type of close observation highlights how autistic children do, indeed, relate to each other, but not in neurotypical language or in ways that neurotypical people instantly recognize. It can be difficult for people unfamiliar with children with autism to understand what is happening. This can easily result in erroneous conclusions, such as the mistaken view that autistic children dislike social relationships and prefer to play alone. Such misunderstanding can endanger autistic children because a major threat to their quality of life is loneliness and a dearth of friendships. Play-based social learning can help them avoid these dangers.

Parallel play among autistic children is a route to social play, not at odds with it.

Differences in autistic children

Autistic children value play with their peers and many are able to play with each other. However, they may communicate more visually and with their hands, rather than in the more verbal way of other children. They may need different facilitation strategies and more support than their neurotypical peers.

The benefit of carefully watching how autistic children play is that it can help others create environments that support the way they actually play, rather than spending time and effort instructing them how to play in neurotypical ways.

Inside parallel play

Some autistic children like to play in parallel. In general, the neurotypical world does not consider this type of play “social” play, but rather as an isolated, solo activity. But in our observations, we have seen that parallel play can be very social. For example, we watched three children building on their individual Lego boards. One was building a house, another was constructing a forest, and the third was building a TV set. We realized that the third child was watching the TV inside the house in the forest. This experience shows the need to cherish parallel play and let it continue until windows of connection occur, as they inevitably do. If we ask ourselves how we can support and strengthen these opportunities for connection, we will recognize that parallel play among autistic children is a route to social play, not at odds with it.

Autistic children play

Photo provided by the author.

Understanding this can help teachers support the social dynamics of autistic children and tinker with those dynamics to support togetherness. In one game, we gave each child a Lego board and suggested that they build a bridge and they had to meet in the middle. In another game, children built a tower. Each child had bricks of a particular color, but the game stipulated that they should not place a brick of one color on top of a brick of the same color. As a result, the children enjoyed open-ended play, which gave them agency. The color rule supported the interaction of their parallel play. Simple games like this may be repeated with slight variations to create learning environments that are predictable, but not tedious, to support autistic children in developing their unique ways of socializing through hands-on experience.

Helping articulation of frustration

Accepting that autistic children can and do communicate  – albeit in atypical ways that may eschew direct language  – helps us support them when they become frustrated. In our work, we try to encourage children to tell the stories of their frustrations, recognizing that verbal explanations may not come easily. For example, in a play session involving a child with two younger children, the older and more experienced child became frustrated with the slowness of the others. To explain, he built a train track with three children on the platform, communicating that he felt like he was waiting for a train, which was frustrating. By ensuring that he had a way to express his feelings practically, we made it easier for him to manage his emotions and be patient.

Try to understand the social strategies the child uses to play with others. Create environments in which those strategies are easy for the child to use.

Suggestions for parents and teachers

We offer three suggestions for those who want to support children who are on the spectrum to ensure that they have access to play-based social learning. First, try to understand the social strategies the child uses to play with others. Create environments in which those strategies are easy for the child to use.

Second, do not be concerned if a child seems to play in parallel with others. At some point, as in the examples mentioned, a window between two parallel players will open. See parallel play as a route to social play.

Third, always assume that children are competent. Whether someone is silent, says “um,” or repeats a sentence, it is all meaningful. Think carefully about what children are doing because their actions provide a window into the way they are interpreting the situation. For example, when a child is tapping, there is something behind that. Behavior is communication.

We think of play as a way of learning – and not just for children. It is also a way for adults to learn about children. Just as we want children to learn from the play situation, so should adults. Be curious in the same way you want children to be curious. Try to adjust the environment to fit how the child is feeling that day – no day is ever the same as another and you never know in advance how a child is feeling.

If you wish to learn more, we have a resource tool kit for playing with children on the spectrum.

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