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Why I Don't Agree With 'Age Appropriate' Play for My Autistic Children

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In my role as “feisty autistic woman” and mum to two, feisty autistic boys, I am acquainted with many non-autistic professionals who like to have an opinion on age appropriate activities for autistic people — children and adults alike. They seem to be very concerned that children, in particular, regulate themselves in “age appropriate” ways and engage in “age appropriate” activities.

My thoughts around this subject have been strengthened following an education meeting where “access to water play” was unilaterally replaced by professionals with the phrase “age appropriate sensory activities.” Aside from this being far too general and non-specific for my child, my son needs to access the sensory seeking he enjoys. It is beyond pleasure seeking for him — it regulates his emotions and physical space in the world.

My son’s mental health is vastly improved by smearing jelly on himself or by face planting in a cake. He loves rolling around in mud and splashing around in water. He also has a plethora of cuddly toys which provide him with both comfort and entertainment.

My eldest son has a teddy bear who travels with him at all times. We lovingly call him the “support bear,” as he has assisted with monumental breakthroughs into independence (accessing new educational settings, for example).

I know my children aren’t alone in utilizing toys in this way. I can recall a BBC article which focused on how a plushy lion and plushy pig supported their autistic owners to access employment.

In our home, our plushies are used in role-play where we act out a great range of social situations. Some even have Instagram accounts and help us connect with the social/digital world.

I do think that it is very short-sighted of professionals to rigidly dismiss the usefulness of these activities. Plushy toys, in particular, are props that help bridge the communication gap by offering a sense of protection. And while the neurotypical world remains relatively inflexible in terms of accommodating autistic people, then a prop that assists is of great benefit to us.

When a professional says “age appropriate” they are meaning age appropriate for neurotypically developing children and young people. Autism, being a developmental condition, means that we develop at a pace that is unique to us. It seems rather ableist to decide what is developmentally appropriate for an autistic person by using non-autistic markers.

I imagine that a neurotypical professional might argue by allowing a child to engage in age inappropriate activities is to expose them to harm, by exposing their vulnerability to the outside world. But this position is entrenched within the perspective that difference is bad and not to be respected. We have the right to be our true authentic selves and to not be hated for this.

I feel that one of the pertinent issues within this debate is that age inappropriate interests are held as markers of abuse — a parent infantilizing a child? Professionals are therefore nervous to advocate outside of “age appropriate” boundaries, but autistic voices are screaming otherwise. There are many blog posts similar to this, with autistic men and women explaining why they need to access toys, cartoons, sensory play, etc.

I certainly won’t be telling my children that they’re too old for particular items or activities.

Photo credit:romrodinka/Getty Images

Originally published: March 28, 2019
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