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Supporting Children With Autism: Play or Challenging Behaviour?

Here, we discuss how approaching the behaviour of a child with autism as play compared to "challenging behaviour" can help us understand their sensory needs.
© University of Sheffield

As you read this research story, consider if this is a story about play or about the challenging behaviour of an autistic child.

‘There is a moment within free-play that Susie spends with the big, floor-to-ceiling window of the classroom. I sit at a distance, behind her to her right as she pushes the side of her face against what I imagine to be the cold, refreshing glass, her brow-bone and cheek-bone flattened to its surface. She pushes her tongue, wide and flat against the window whilst gazing through it to the play area outside. She is peaceful, relaxed and seems to enjoy the moment she’s experiencing.
Behind her, the gaggle of other children continue their riotous play and once again swarm to my knees to share pictures and toys with the stranger in the corner. It is loud, chaotic (in a highly organised fashion) and stuffily hot. I shift my attention back to Susie and her window-haven. I imagine the satisfaction of the cold condensation of the window on my tongue and the hypnotic experience of zoning out of the chaos and spending time with a window. I smile and feel that Susie has given me something in that moment; something peaceful and reassuring amongst the chaos around us both.’
Later, the teacher, June, recalls having seen me observing Susie during the window licking.
‘You’ll have noticed she licked the window a few times.’
I am reminded of my observation and recall it with fondness, ‘Yeah, do you wonder if there was some kind of sensory satisfaction going on there, you know, with the cold surface, it’s smooth….?’
I am cut off.
‘It’s bad habits. She needs to stop it and we are getting there. She’s doing it less than she used to, we just need to keep on top of it and stop her when she does it.’

Susie stopped being a child in the classroom, playing and enjoying herself and her time with the cool, wet, smooth window and was positioned as trouble, a problem, and inherently in need of remedy by professionals. Here, June began to draw on a discourse that commonly crops up for autistic children in relation to professional descriptions of their actions, in descriptions of their being – ‘challenging behaviour’.

Challenging behaviour is a term commonly associated with autism and drawn on when talking about autistic individuals. Traditionally, challenging behaviour was considered to be ‘difficult’, ‘problematic’, or ‘socially unacceptable’, a very medicalised or behavioural view of an individual issue that needed fixing.

In recent years this definition has begun to recognise that such behaviours are actually far more about the challenge experienced by the people working with the individual rather than individual themselves possessing a problem in need of fixing (for more information about a helpful, contemporary understanding of challenging behaviour, follow the link to the UK charity, Scope’s, resources in the optional further reading below). However, the limiting, traditional definition of challenging behaviour of unacceptable behaviour in need of correction still appears to permeate how Susie is being described.

Within Susie’s play that morning, two competing discourses were being drawn on, one, which we would argue was limiting Susie’s play, and one which could teach us to appreciate and embrace Susie’s play.

The first was the challenging behaviour discourse which positioned her play as not play at all, but in fact part of her autism. June drew on this conceptualisation, one in which autism limited what would be accepted as play and pushed Susie’s actions to the margin, as non-normative (i.e. wrong) and merely a ‘bad habit’. Images of a future-Susie were invoked – the bad habit needed to be stopped now so that older, future-Susie wasn’t licking windows in her later life. Do we assume that all three year old children will be engaging in the same play in their adult life? We don’t. However, what Susie was doing that morning was not considered as a small act, a part of play, transient and temporary, but as something that unless stopped, she would inevitably continue to engage in in the future. When positioned as such, her actions became part of the challenging behaviour discourse in which, due to its social inappropriateness, could, and would be stopped through professional intervention and replaced with a more acceptable form of play.

The second, alternative discourse we could draw on here, we would argue, offers far more potential for our exploration of play and what it means for children. If we think about Sutton-Smith’s Rhetorics of Play  and view this as a moment of ‘Play of the Self’ (where play is seen as a form of relaxation and escape from everyday life) we are recognising and valuing Susie’s experience and opening up our understanding of play. It stops being an example of ‘challenging behaviour’ and becomes play, which as we have been learning, must be a truly inclusive space that can be occupied by all, without limit, bound or judgement.

Our interpretation of Susie’s experience was driven by what we imagine was a sensory, bodily satisfaction of a body in contact with a surface – the ‘Play of the Self’. Susie seems to have a penchant for contact, for touch, for pressure on her skin, this is the type of play that makes her happy. Within autism studies this would be considered part of her sensory preference, her ‘sensory profile’; her preferences for particular sensory stimulation (for more information and an example of a sensory profile which aims to understand children’s sensory likes and dislikes follow The Autism Education Trust link in the further reading below). As a result of seeing this in action in her everyday world, we take her interaction with the window as working at a bodily, sensory level in which something was satisfied by the sensation of her tongue on the glass. She certainly seemed happy. Her body, in ‘showing’ her autism offered her satisfaction. Her body, in showing others ‘bad habits’ frustrated and pushed at June as it challenged what she defined as play and drew on discourses of challenging behaviour.

For us, this is a missed opportunity for considering how autistic childhoods can open up our thinking; how they can give us the opportunity to think about other ways of playing, of using space, of difference and of challenging the limitations put on play for disabled children.

Susie used her body and the space around it differently. She was interacting with everyday objects that might otherwise be ignored and marginal to children’s experiences of school or nursery. But what does her alternative use of space do if we consider them as opportunities to think differently about children’s bodies and play in educational spaces?

Optional Further Reading

The UK charity Scope, whose aim is that disabled people will have the same opportunities as everyone else, has on its website a wide range of resources including this helpful introduction to contemporary understanding of Challenging Behaviour.

The Autism Education Trust Training Hub: Sensory Assessment Checklist The Autism Education Trust’s website gives an example of a sensory profile which aims to understand children’s sensory likes and dislikes.

The Challenging Behaviour Foundation is a charity providing information and support for people caring for someone with a severe learning disabilities. Their website contains lots of helpful information including a section Understanding Challenging Behaviour.

Pinterest Collections Sensory Diet Activities and Sensory Play Activities are wonderful resources showing lots of creative ideas of creating sensory environments and play. As with all content of this nature, anyone can contribute to it, so please view with a critical eye.

© University of Sheffield
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Exploring Play: The Importance of Play in Everyday Life

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