Is it Neuroaffirming

to Work on

Pretend Play Skills with

Autistic Children?

Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast – Episode 20

by Adina Levy

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Show Notes:

In this episode, I share my answer to this question I hear often: Is it Neuroaffirming to Work on Pretend Play Skills with Autistic Children?
And my short answer is… it depends! Tune in to hear the things you need to ask yourself and keep in mind to weigh up a more personalised answer to this question.


Allied Health Professionals, you’re invited to my FREE on-demand webinar: Neurodiversity Affirming Practice Kickstart – Register here to kick off or clarify your next steps on your Neurodiversity Affirming Practice journey! https://playlearnchat.com/free-neurodiversity-webinar/




Welcome to the Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast. I’m Adina Levy from Play. Learn. Chat. I’m a neurodivergent speech therapist. And I’m obsessed with creating a world when neurodiversity is understood, embraced, supported, and celebrated. Join me as we have conversations about autistic, ADHD, neurodivergent experiences, and I share how you can support neurodivergent children in your world.
Let’s all work together to make change where change is needed so that the world can be a more friendly place for neurodivergent people and for everyone.

” Is it neuroaffirming to work on pretend play skills with autistic children or am I causing unintentional harm?” This is a fantastic question that I’ve been asked many times by therapists who are supporting autistic children.

Now you might have heard me talk about this idea that all play is okay and that’s a really core part of the neurodiversity affirming approach to me. So what that means, is that we recognise that autistic play sometimes looks different from the play of non autistic kids.

And that’s okay. We don’t need to change the play of autistic children and in fact we should not be changing the play of autistic children. We don’t need to teach children to play in a particular way.

And the most wonderful affirming thing you can do when you do notice that an autistic child is exploring their world, and playing, and discovering, having fun, and in flow, is first of all, just stop, and watch, and appreciate, and notice, that there’s a lot that they might be able to teach you about their world, about the way that they view, and understand, and experience the world, and the way that they experience joy in the world.

We can also learn a lot from autistic kids play in terms of new ways that we could see the world. So to answer this question about whether working on pretend play is neurodiversity affirming or not, like many things, it’s rarely a clear yes or no answer, which is why I thought it’s a perfect topic for this podcast episode.

I’m going to share two big questions that you need to ask yourself to think through your answer to this in any individual situation and I’m also going to share three ideas that you want to keep in mind.

The first question is, consider why pretend play might be a goal for the child. A neurodiversity affirming approach to goal setting is all about setting goals collaboratively with a child and their family that are meaningful and relevant and functional and lead to overall better wellbeing for that child. If you have a goal for an autistic child, that is something around pretend play, and it’s about helping the child connect and learn and have fun in new ways that might be just a little bit different to what they already enjoy doing, then it might well be a neurodiversity affirming goal and activity to do with the child. But, if we have a goal for a particular child around pretend play, and it’s there because the grown ups around them feel that the child should play in this particular way, because it might make them seem more normal, or neurotypical, or because the other kids are doing it, those are some flags that a pretend play goal may not be appropriate and may not be neurodiversity affirming for that particular child. In fact, just the word “should”, is a big marker of something that we might need to question. Where is this “should” coming from?

Where is this sense of obligation that a child should be following a particular trajectory or pathway? Sometimes it’s valid, but other times, there might be some ableist, neuro-normative assumptions that we need to pick apart, and put aside so that we are supporting autistic kids in a neurodiversity affirming way.

The second question I would like you to ask yourself is Is the child interested in pretend play at all?

if they’re already showing signs of being interested in pretend play, They like the kinds of toys that you’re thinking of, They enjoy doing types of pretend play already Whether it’s solo or with somebody else involved That’s a good sign that it might be a neurodiversity affirming approach to join in with them, or even just to model near them, different kinds of ways that they can do pretend play that are really similar to the way they’re already playing, but just a little step different, as an offer, an opportunity, of one little new idea , that they might want to take on with no pressure to do so.

So that is an affirming approach. However, if the child is not interested in pretend play and you’re bringing out the medical kit and the dolls and the kid is just simply not interested or the way that they’re interacting with the materials that you’ve got on hand for what would typically be pretend play, they’re interacting with those materials in a wholly unexpected way, not showing an interest in pretending, then I would suggest leave it.
Kids don’t have to do pretend play, it’s not part of an obligatory list of developmental steps that a child must go through.
If the child is simply not interested in pretend play, then I would say step away. That is going to be a non affirming goal, if you pursue it for that child at that time. Things might change down the line and that’s fine.
Whether you’re an allied health professional, a teacher, a parent supporting an autistic child, your job is to personalise the goals or the ideas that you’re supporting that child in or the activities that you’re doing together. See where the child is at, meet them there and either join in or observe.

And over time, when you’ve got relationship and safety and security built, you can support them to experience one little tiny step, just a little bit different or a little bit outside of what they’re already doing. Again, as an offer, as an opportunity, something that they might want to take on to try something new, but there’s no pressure for them to take on your idea.
So those are the two questions that you need to ask yourself to figure out if pretend play is a neurodiversity affirming goal to have for a particular child. And I’m going to share three ideas that you need to keep in mind as well.

The first is that play has to be fun and flow, otherwise it is not play. Play doesn’t have to look any particular way. It just has to be enjoyable, playful, and engaging for that particular child.

What can happen when we grown ups march in and try to encourage a child to play in a different way is that it’s not play anymore necessarily.
We might break the flow. We might also lead to a new type of play that the child enjoys. But there’s an absolute risk when we’re interacting with any child, that we might kill the fun in an attempt to change the play, rather than actually encouraging that child to enjoy themselves, and to perhaps include you if that’s okay for the child.

Now I mentioned that play is about flow as well as fun, and this leads me to point number two, which is that pretend play doesn’t have to happen in isolation. If you just stop to observe a child playing, you’re probably going to notice that over a few minutes, their play might seamlessly blend between different types of play.

A certain play type doesn’t just happen, there might be different types of play all within a few minutes or within one moment even.
So you might observe a child doing constructive play, so building something, a sensory play, enjoying the feeling of the blocks in their hands or listening to it crash down. Pretend play might come into it. Maybe they drive a fire engine up to the tower to try and, act out a scene to try and fix it.

Cool. Okay. If that’s what the child enjoys, then that’s fabulous.
Play is rarely, if ever, just one type of thing. It doesn’t really stick to one category.

You might find that a child is playing in a way that might lead you to demonstrate just a tiny little pretend play idea. Again, as an offer, an opportunity for them, to see something that’s just a little bit different from what they already enjoy doing, with no obligation or pressure for them to do anything with your idea.

That might be introducing just a little moment, a glimpse of pretending. If the child enjoys it and its basis is in what that child is already enjoying doing and how they like to play, then that might be a very beautiful neurodiversity affirming way of bringing pretending into their world.

But this brings me to point number three and I’ve left it last, it’s very important but I wanted to leave you with this thought as our last main idea for today, that children don’t have to do pretend play. I mentioned earlier that despite what many of us might have learnt in university or in other training courses.

Kids don’t all have to meet all kinds of play type tick-a-boxes in order to learn and develop as whole humans.

While there are fabulous learning and development benefits that come from exploring different types of play, you don’t get that benefit when we’re asking a child to play in a way that just doesn’t jive with the way that they like to explore their world.

Put simply, autistic kids, all kids, all people, learn best when we’re engaging in the world in the way that we love most. Around our interests and around our preferences.

So, while pretend play can bring some benefits, things like developing symbolic thinking and perspective taking, if a child is simply not interested or not ready at all for that type of play, there’s not going to be a benefit of showing it to them and trying to get them to play in that way.

And yes, you might indeed find that some compliant kids might take on your type of play and copy it. And it’s up to you to work out on an individual level. Is that something that the child is really enjoying, or is it something that they’re doing because they think that they have to to please me and it’s actually not fun and it’s not play.

So if you come across an autistic child who is absolutely not interested in pretend play at all, please don’t fret, please don’t force it, please don’t push it. You can continue to explore it in little ways if it feels appropriate as a tiny different idea based on what that child already enjoys, but you don’t have to.

There are so many other ways that children can learn perspective taking, symbolic thinking, all of the wonderful benefits that pretend play can bring.

It’s going to be much more effective to focus your time, attention, interactions, and joy in watching the child play in the way that they love to play, what comes naturally to them, learn about the way that they love to play. Learn something about new ways of playing that you yourself could try. Sometimes join in. If it really is interesting to that child to explore pretend play, then absolutely do go and join in, model some slightly new ideas, have a play with it. But please remove any sense of obligation that every child has to do pretend play.

I hope this has helped answer this question for you. If this has been on your mind, if you’re a professional new to the journey of neurodiversity affirming practice, or you’re really thinking about how you can understand these principles better so that you can formulate your own answers, when interesting questions like this pop up for you, I’ve got a free webinar that’s available for you anytime.

It’s called the Neurodiversity Affirming Practice Kickstart Webinar, where I share three actionable tips that you can do right away when you watch it. It’s for you if you’re an allied health professional supporting autistic and neurodivergent kids. And you’re either quite new to these ideas of Neurodiversity Affirming Practice, or you’ve been thinking, learning, listening a little bit, but you’re just not quite sure where to head next. What I do in the webinar is share some really practical tips that you can actually kick off your journey or progress in your Affirming Practice journey straight away.

I love to make things practical, that’s what I do. So I’ll pop the link for that in the show notes, or you can head to playlearnchat.com/free-neurodiversity- webinar. Or just head into the show notes and tap the link there.

If you found this episode helpful, please share it with a friend and join me on Instagram and Facebook. I’m @play.learn.chat
that’s Play.Learn.Chat, you’ll find all the links that we discussed in the show notes.

Have a fabulous day.


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