Learning to play. No. Playing to learn.

by Nanny Aut

Image by Stevieboy1966 from Pixabay

As the previous post discussed, autistic brains are monotropic in nature. This affects how we learn, and why we learn that way.  It also affects our early play, and directs activities such as lining up and arranging our toys.  These activities, that poorly informed NT (neurotypical) researchers mistakenly label as pointless, or inappropriate, not only have a point, and are completely appropriate, but are vital to our learning development. Teaching us to play in a ‘more appropriate’ aka ‘more familiar’ NT way deprives us of the opportunity to create those vital connections that we use as the core foundation for our life-long learning.

Like every other person on this planet, we play for three reasons, enjoyment, relaxation and learning. As young children, it’s through play that we figure out how the world works and practice what we have learnt. However, what we enjoy, how we relax and what we focus on learning is very different between NT and autistics.

NT children, from very early on, focus on the social world, engaging in ‘interactive, imaginative play’ that practices the social skills and rules that NTs use, and value, in their day-to-day life.

Autistic children focus on the mechanics of the world, through pattern making and identifying connections. We organise, sort, line up and categorise. In doing so, we are creating the fundamental connectivity in our brain that is the foundation of the inter-connected knowledge structure that we add to and re-design as we grow and develop. We explore through all our senses to create as deep a pattern of information about something as possible. It is this in-depth knowledge that we need later on to inform our decision making, especially around whether something is safe or not.

As young children we tend to avoid interaction with others, unless we need help, because interactions can smash up the patterns we are exploring, and muddle the connections we are trying to find, and we have to start again, from scratch. This disrupts the connection building that is essential to our learning style.

In addition, the processing required to manage complex social interactions is overwhelming. As was said in the first post of this series, most of our processing is occupied with other things, so social interaction can completely take over the free bandwidth we need to learn with. We learn better through observation, where we can sit to the side and figure out what is going on, without the added task of interacting at the same time. This means that, while we may not enjoy interactive social play and gain nothing but an overload from it, we do enjoy parallel play, where we can do our own thing and observe from the sidelines what is going on next to us. For many of us, this is still very much connection with those around us. Especially since our personal boundary is very much larger than most NTs, so if someone is in the same room as us, we are already sharing our personal space.

Another feature common in our early learning can be alarming for parents. It is often mislabelled as regression or even burnout, where a child stops using skills they have gained some mastery in – for instance they suddenly stop talking. This is monotropism in practice. What you are seeing isn’t so much regression as a change in priorities. A failure to understand how our brains works and that switching learning focus is perfectly natural for autistics is what led to quacks like Wakefield falsely linking vaccines to being autistic and causing so much harm with his false information. In reality, at the same age that we get the MMR vaccine, our awareness of the world expands exponentially. This also means that our processing demands expand exponentially and we start to have to prioritise what we learn and how we learn it.

At this age, NT brains start to filter, capping input to about seven items at a time. In addition, they open up more processing channels to spread processing capacity (polytropism). Autistic brains don’t put in this filter, so, as awareness of the outside world grows, we can be dealing with seventy plus pieces of information at one time, and we tend to run only one channel at a time (monotropism). This can create massive log jams in processing, especially when so much is still new and to be learned about. A huge amount of our processing bandwidth is being taken up by noting, evaluating and categorising every bit of input coming in. To avoid all this new information overloading the system, our brains often choose to prioritise one skill at a time.

This means that skills that are secure and established but take high processing, such as speech, can get ‘switched off’, temporarily, in order to clear space for learning new things. These skills aren’t gone, they are just put on pause until there is room to bring them back into play.

Once we have evaluated and processed most of the input around us to create our knowledge foundations and we have built clear roads connecting them together, we are ready to move our learning on. As processing demand on structure creation drops freeing up more processing we are able to expand our play from explorative play to include imaginative and interactive play.

As we get older, we often enjoy imaginative and interactive play, so long as it is under one person’s control the whole time. This keeps things safe, predictable and prevents a processing overload. The NT style of interactive play, randomly bouncing from one contribution to another, is very hard to follow, and makes it challenging to identify the underlying patterns and connections behind the amorphous mass of ideas. We have often have no idea what is going on or what is an appropriate way to join in. And the speed of the random changes means we are often left behind as processing lag prevents us mentally keeping pace. It is often a set-up for failure because NT children are unaware that our minds work differently. This means that they don’t think to slow down their play or to be explicit about changes to the play or explicitly include us in the interactions. This means that the only solution we have, in order to protect ourselves from a processing overload, and avoid mistakes or exclusion is to take charge and direct the play.

This need to protect ourselves can give us the reputation of being controlling in our play, and not allowing others to contribute. In reality, so long as the other person is clear and we know what is expected, we are happy with someone else driving the play – but it has to be just one other person, and when they drive, we don’t contribute. Unfortunately, this doesn’t suit NT neurology – just as we struggle with the fast random interaction of NT play, NTs struggle to be the sole director of explicit and predictable play, so we often have to take over to keep it at a manageable level of predictability and processing.

Social skills training that looks to teach us to socialise like NTs (not a desirable goal), usually don’t recognise that this is what is going on. Often board games are used to teach us turn taking in conversation and interactive play. This is under the false belief that there is a correlation between these activities and that the rules of playing board games transfer to conversation and interactive play – they don’t.

Group social interactions, where everyone takes a turn, often at random, following rules that change and are not explicit, are very different to board games. Board games are very predictable, with clear rules that don’t change. The order of whose turn it is to play remains the same for every round. The only thing that can trip us up is the expectations around winning. We are often told that the purpose of the game is to win. This means that, if we don’t win then we have failed to play it right and this leads to shame and frustration. Think of how the term ‘Loser’ is used as an insult. Understanding that the game concludes when someone wins and that even though we played the game well, it might not be us, is an important distinction that needs to be made clear. As does the fact that, because games often rely on chance, winning doesn’t make you better and losing doesn’t make you worse. Overly celebrating the winner can send the wrong message entirely. Teaching children to win graciously and acknowledge the other players’ skill is a very useful lesson for children of all neurotypes.

Another concept most of us struggle with, even as adults, is sharing belongings that have meaning to us. Or artificial ‘turn-taking’. To us, a turn means playing with the toy until that game is over. When the game is complete and we no longer have a use for that toy, and that toy isn’t important to us, then by all means, someone else may have a turn. This ‘failure to share’ or ‘take turns’ in an artificial way is considered a serious character flaw.

NT adults seem perfectly ok with allowing toys to be snatched mid-game, with no respect for what is going on under the guise of ‘learning to share’. And expecting children to be ok with letting others take their valued items and put them under threat of being lost, spoiled or damaged. They don’t appear to recognise that these items can be very important security anchors to us. Imagine if an adult demanded that their friend let them drive their prized car – because ‘sharing is caring’. If adults are allowed to ring-fence items and not put them in the community pile, then it is only reasonable to allow children the same respect.

Remember – Sharing is Caring – Let your uninsured neighboour borrow it for a spin 🙂
Image by Toby Parsons from Pixabay

A lot of us greatly enjoy solo or parallel play, even in adulthood, because it allows us to enter the ‘flow’ state. That state of deep engagement that shuts out all the external noise that we normally have to deal with. That relaxed state that people try to achieve through meditation or yoga. Living solely in the ‘now’. When we are in ‘flow’ we can relax and our brain can stop processing all the background ‘noise’, allowing it to calm and engage entirely in the activity we are doing. Whether it is lining up toys in a specific order and pattern or reading books, playing computer games or learning everything you can about Ancient Egypt. This skill is seen as a highly desirable one to learn. Of course, when it is autistics naturally engaged in flow it is seen as a BAD THING. Our intense focus is labelled as ‘failure to respond to others’, instead of ‘choosing not to interact with others, who are trying to disrupt our concentration, for no good reason’. If you are in our personal space, in the same room as us, we are aware of you and we are connecting with you – just not outwardly displaying this. However, if other people intentionally disrupt the flow, yanking us out of our meditative state, it is like having ice water poured over our heads – and we are not likely to respond well. If someone does need to interrupt then let us know gently, allow us to find a completion point – end of the chapter, finishing a level etc. and wait for us to complete, and then emerge from flow and re-engage with the outside world before continuing the interaction.

From eisforerin.com. More of her work available at humanillustrations.com

As for having fun. Fun is very much in the eye of the beholder. Many of my four-year old peers thought it was fun to have dolly tea parties. I did too, but not in the same way. For them, it was all about the made-up conversations in ‘dolly’ voices – often so they could be mean to each other or me – actually mostly me – but THEY weren’t being mean – it was ‘Dolly’, so you weren’t allowed to object. I was into it for the teeny tiny cups and saucers and creating realistic teeny tiny food. And later on, the teeny tiny outfits that I designed and sewed – by six I had quite a nice side hustle in school selling dolly designer outfits to the others. While I do not have a doll’s house, I still spend many happy hours in toy shops admiring the miniature doll’s furniture that is available. There is something about a perfect miniature replica of anything that makes my brain all shiny and happy.

I also liked cops and robbers. I was volunteered to be the cop who has to stay in the station. Given my oddities and my clumsiness, the other children were happy with this arrangement. I happily read my book in the corner, or played with leaves or watched insects, while everyone chased and roared around me and went ‘Powpowpow’. Occasionally, they would ruin the game by actually arresting the robber and bringing them back to the station for me to guard. Naturally, I solved this by leaving the imaginary key outside their imaginary cell door and letting the robber escape. Sometimes I did have to explain the escape plan to them though. Twice.

Play is an important part of development and learning for everyone. How we play and how we learn is different and that difference needs to be respected.

  1. Let us play the way that we want to play. Don’t try to guide, re-direct or ‘normalise’ our play. Enjoy it.
  2. Development timelines are different for autistics – worrying about us meeting NT milestones only creates pointless stress for everyone.
  3. Enjoy the fact that we can achieve flow, even from an early age. Allow us to transition smoothly out of it, don’t force us out.
  4. Stop calling our interests obssessions or fixations. They are passions or in-depth expertise, core to our learning structure.
  5. Stop trying to force NT social interactions when we aren’t ready to do that. Allow us to get there in our own time.
  6. Recognise our social play is designed to stop us overwhelming. It meets a need. We aren’t being controlling or difficult.
  7. Don’t teach us that we need to mimic NT social skills in order to be acceptable – teach us that NTs have different ways of socialising to us and that we need to educate and advocate for our differences to improve mutual understanding. Even better – if you are a kindergarten or primary teacher – teach the whole class that there are different ways of playing, socialising and communicating and that the NT way is not the only ‘right’ way.
  8. The definition of ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyable’ is unique to the individual. What another might find fun might be sensory hell to us – and what we find fun might seem unusual or even ‘inappropriate’ to others. If it isn’t harming others – don’t steal our joy.

Diversity is how a culture thrives. We need all styles of learners in a society. So let all children play to their strengths and allow us to play, learn and develop the way that nature designed us to. Forcing us to play in a way that we weren’t designed to is like putting diesel in a petrol car – it can really gum up the works.

3 thoughts on “Learning to play. No. Playing to learn.

  1. You really are the best writer I have ever read on topics such as these – nothing else comes even remotely close! How I wish the whole world could read your articles, it would definitely be a better place to live in for us Autistics if they did (read and take it all to heart).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Very interesting article. As a speech pathologist and parent to a ND adult daughter, it gave me a lot to think about and mull. I do have a question. Are these based on research of autistic brains and people or are they your experiences? Or both? Thank you for the great read. I look forward to exploring the site more!


    1. A little of column A and a little of column B plus some of column C.
      Column A: Developmental theories currently focus on NT child development, there is scant research on autistic milestones. But serve as a compare / contrast of learning focus between neurologies.
      Column B: Four years of interacting in autistic spaces and applying Grounded Theory analysis identified a very clear trend. My personal experience repeated over and over from autistics with a very wide range of backgrounds.
      Column C: Growing body of research into monotropism and connectomes in the autistic brain, along with other autistic neurology research such as lack of dendritic pruning.


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