A Closer Look at Neurotypical and Nerodivergent Play-Based Behaviors

Play is a time for children to innocently learn, explore and enjoy! When children are happy and engaged, they are learning! For this reason, our therapists not only provide play-based sessions, but teach parents and caregivers how to embed language strategies in play and daily routines!

So what play does this have to do with neurodiversity?
Well, unfortunately, many autistic children have been discouraged and/or forced to discontinue their way of playing, so that they can be ‘trained’ to play in a way that looks like the play of a neurotypical or nonautistic child.

For example: “Stop watching the wheels on the car spin around. You need to push the car: vroom-wroom!” Or “No, balls aren’t for scrambling and tapping! balls are for rolling. It’s time for rolling the ball back and forth now!”

But remember: When children are happy and engaged, they are learning!

Imagine, for a moment, how frustrating it might be, to be told that you couldn’t play with a toy the way you wanted. Imagine, for a moment, how frustrating it might be, to be told that you couldn’t play with a toy that you wanted and you had no way to tell someone how you felt because you didn’t have the language yet?

So what’s our approach at Chatterboxes to supporting a child who may be playing differently than a neurotypical child?

We might narrate play by observing, Ooooow! The wheels on the car go around and around! Spin! Vroom!” And “It feels cool to scramble things and watch the colors move! Weee!”

It’s important to note here, that many children learn early on that if they play the way the adult or teacher/therapist wants them to play, the adult tends to be more proud and happy for them. So the child does it, in an effort to either:

1. ‘Get it over with’: The faster I play with the toy they want, the faster I can go to my room and play with it my own way.
2. ‘People-please’: I’m not having fun and this is no longer play, but if it makes them proud of me, I’ll just do it.

What might happen when we attempt to train children to play ‘the right way’?
We might see Autistic Masking or Camouflaging (more details below)* or Autistic Burnout (more details below)*
Both of which conditions are evidenced to be dangerous and sadly, even deadly.

Bavaro, Kelli. “Let’s Talk About Neurodiversity and Play.” Chatterboxes, November 12, 2022 

Our therapetic goals at Chatterboxes are not to turn an autistic person into a non-autistic person. Rather, our SLP’s work to support an autistic person who struggles to become an autistic person who doesn’t struggle
We welcome your questions, feedback and thoughts on this topic. Should you like to discuss in more detail, please contact your clinician, or our Clinical Supervisor, Kelli Bavaro, M.S.,CCC-SLP via email at Kelli@TeamChatterboxes.com