child scientist wearing a white lab coat

Autistic playing can look different to non-autistic play but is that because we are learning about different things to our peers? I’ve already talked about autistic play and lining things up and now I’m going to look at what we learn while we are playing.

I love investigating the world and I did that through play just like every other kid. Because I am Autistic I played in Autistic ways. When it comes to play sometimes we are more interested in how things work rather than what they do. The Autistic child who sits for hours watching wheels spin? They’re figuring out all kinds of things. They are learning about all kinds of scientific principles. Yes! Even when they are only a toddler.

Unfortunately some people do not recognise what we are doing. Some professionals have said that the Autistic child at play is watching wheels spin in a mindless kind of way. These sort of “evaluations” say more about their professional bias and attitude towards Autistics and less about their actual understanding of how the Autistic mind works. When you look at how professionals have spoken about autism and play you can see how little they really know about us.

When I was around 10 or 11 I used to “play” with cisterns in our house. I’m sure if someone was analysing my play they would’ve deemed it odd or inappropriate. They may have wondered why a young girl was spending her time emptying a cistern by flushing the toilet and then refilling it with cups of water.

Perhaps they may have thought I had a fascination with cisterns. They may have thought it was an unhealthy obsession. Perhaps they may have suggested an intervention to teach me to play with “appropriate” toys. If they had realised I was Autistic then I’ve no doubt some intervention would’ve been recommended. But then they would have missed out on what I was learning of course.

While playing with the cistern in our upstairs bathroom I learnt about gravity. I learnt about displacement. I taught myself about the velocity of water, flow rates and capacity. While playing I taught myself about many scientific concepts . These were taught to me again later on in school when I studied physics.

Autistic children at play are often child  child scientists but they do not have to look like this child scientist in this image with a white coat in a lab
Many people think learning about science has to look like this but the world is our laboratory.

What do professionals say about autism and play?

Professionals and charities will often warn parents of signs of autism. They tell parents to watch out for the child who prefers to play alone, another sign of the terrible autism! I preferred to play alone while I was studying all of this. How would any good scientist analyse, process and evaluate their experiments with constant interruption?

If another child joined in, the chances are they wouldn’t have realised what I was doing. They may have just started chucking cups of water in randomly without understanding the purpose of what I was doing. Or maybe they’d flush the toilet whenever they felt like it instead of doing it at carefully timed intervals. Would I have been annoyed? Absolutely! Because I would have had to start the whole process again. They would’ve ruined my flow of thought. I was not taking notes in a book. I was doing all of this in my head. I was often running a number of different hypotheses at one time, sensing my way through the information. Any interruption could cause these hypotheses to dissolve from my mind and meaning that I would have to start the whole thing again.

Teaching ourselves

We all learn through play and Autistic kids are no different. We teach ourselves all kinds of things by experimenting, by doing, by figuring things out. I still learn like this today because this is how I learn. I learn through experiences. Learning this way can often look like I’m learning the hard way. I make several mistakes as I go and I learn from each one. I teach myself this way because it’s the way I gain a really full understanding.

This sort of learning is called autodidactic learning and Autistics are particularly good at teaching ourselves. But where is the space for the Autistic child to teach themselves in our schools? How many IEPs (Individualised Education Program) designed for Autistic children contain a plan to foster our style of self-teaching? Why are many teachers are under the impression that autism magically creates slow learners instead of realising that we can teach ourselves very effectively? How many classes that claim to be specifically designed for Autistic children give Autistic kids opportunities to teach themselves? How many autism classes foster Autistic play?

Where did people get the idea that Autistic children need everything broken down for them in order for them to learn? How many people stop to ask the Autistic kid who knows everything there is to know about dinosaurs, trees or race cars “who taught you all this?”. The answer of course is no-one. No-one taught them. They taught themselves.

How have we made advances as humans? We’ve done it through discovery, through investigation and by happy accidents or mistakes as well as by building on what we already know. The world is our laboratory.

How did we think up all things that are now written in books without the books to guide us in the first place?

We taught ourselves.

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