by Lizzie Vaughan, Director of All About Autism
Going through the diagnosis process for something like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or one of the other neurodevelopmental disorders that come under the neurodivergent umbrella, often focuses on the negatives. Things an individual can’t do, finds difficult, skills that are lacking or different to a neurotypically developing person.
The diagnosis journey for autism in particular is primarily centred around its negative aspects; the challenges, obstacles, and symptoms associated with being autistic.
This model, called a deficit model, is very different to what autistic voices are now championing. In a neuro-affirming approach, we instead recognise that instead of deficits, these are differences. For example, if you were in a room of autistic people, the neurotypicals would appear quirky or odd.
As blogger Kristen Hovet writes, “My way of being and communicating socially is odd, problematic, or deficient only from a neurotypical standpoint.”
So, what do we see as a deficit in autism, that is actually a non-deficit?
Repetitive playing and happy stimming: Children lining up their cars rather than pushing them around a track is often noticed as an early indicator of differently developing play skills, and a focus for early intervention. Flapping hands when feeling excited and having big body movements that we would call stimming can be another early sign. But these actions often provide enjoyment; repeatedly experiencing the same soothing or joyful emotions with safe and repetitive play.
From a neurotypical viewpoint, it may appear unusual or different, but they might not fully grasp the richness and beauty found in those seemingly simple things that can evoke complex and vivid experiences for an autistic person.
Playing alone: We sometimes see our children walking around the playground rather than getting involved in a large social group game or playing with an activity on their own. This alone time is not always lonely. Not only is it a great opportunity to rest and refill your battery, but being able to fully engage with a toy or a thought without interruptions allows you to immerse into a magical realm of your own creation.
Autistic interests: Birds, Thomas the Tank Engine, Pokémon, or one of the other numerous special interests that our children have a depth of knowledge about are often the opposite of narrow or restricted. They can be remarkably expansive, deep, boundless. Looking in from the outside, you can truly appreciate them only by learning about their intricacies, their nuances, and the joy they can offer.
Parallel play: Playing near but not playing with. Although it can appear to be isolating, being near someone brings the soothing presence of a loved one. Knowing that person is there, and with you, but without any social pressure or expectation can often convey profound meaning beyond the limitations of words.
I truly believe that autistic play and joy is valid, valuable, meaningful. Continuing to approach everyone with kindness and compassion will help the next generation of autistic children feel safe, included and thrive.