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Playful Communication Part 3: Wordplay

Previously I’ve written about the importance of recognising and valuing different forms of communication and the need for us to allow for expressive as well as functional communication. In this piece I’m going to take a specific look at language as a form of expressive communication and in particular what this can look like in the play of autistic people.

In troduction

For most people language as a form of expression is something that is encouraged; writing poetry, prose and music is not only valued and celebrated but considered an act that is essentially human. This is often forgotten when it comes to autistic children where “non-functional” language can get brushed aside by surrounding adults as not meaningful, worth listening too or in some cases even seen as damaging to the child. But autistic people should be allowed and encouraged to enjoy and play with language just as their neuro-typical peers are. In trying to prevent this use of language we are denying an individual a culturally and historically significant part of being human. I would also argue that playing with language is one way in which it can become meaningful to an individual. Therefore as people are most comfortable and content when able to communicate in a way that is meaningful to them, limiting this playing with language is only going to hinder their ability to communicate and be heard.

Some words

Before I jump in, I want to define a few words I’m going to be using in the rest of this essay, these are words commonly used by autistic people, allies, parents and professionals alike. The basic meanings people use don’t tend to vary that much but the way people approach or understand each one does. These definitions won’t be exhaustive but will hopefully give you an understanding or what I mean when I use these words.

Stimming

This word comes from ‘stimulatory’ in “self-stimulatory behaviour”. It’s not just autistic people who do this, but we tend to do it particularly often and it can fulfil many different functions. We also do it fantastically well. It can help regulate the senses, manage anxiety or other difficult emotions, be a part of feeling excited or joyful or be done simply because it feels good. Stimming usually takes the form of a repetitive behaviour that engages one or more of the senses such as rocking, jumping, hand flapping and humming.

Echolalia

This is a form of communication where someone repeats phrases or words they’ve heard. It can be immediate; you might say to a child “do you want to go on the swing” and they might say “swing” back to mean yes, where another child, not using echolalia, might just say “yes”. Or it can be delayed, with phrases or words repeated back moments, hours, days later. This could be because they’ve been processing what was said during that delay, or they might be using what was said before to convey meaning in that present moment. Either way it might look like the child coming up to you an hour later and saying, “do you want to go on the swing” and meaning “I want to go on the swing can you push me.”

Scripting

There are two main kinds of scripting, echolalic scripting and social scripting, although they cross over. Social scripting is using learned or repeated phrases to navigate social situations. The kind I’m going to be talking about here is echolalic scripting which I would describe as where echolalia and stimming meet. People will use lines from films, tv shows, books, songs, conversations they’ve had or overheard to ‘script’ with. They may repeat long streams of dialogue or a short bit over and over. This can be for enjoyment, self-expression or as a way of engaging with someone. It’s common for people to draw on a bank of learned phrases or dialogue (‘scripts’) which they associate with a certain emotion or situation when they find themselves experiencing that emotion or situation.

Now let’s get into the serious play stuff.

In Play

[colourful line drawing showing two children, one is half way through saying “knock knock” and the other has just shouted “batman!”]

Poop Jokes for President

Of the 16 play types described by play theorist Bob Hughes, what I’m talking about here fits best, although not quite snugly, into the category of ‘Communication Play’. Hughes defines this as;

 play using words, nuances or gestures for example, mime, jokes, play acting, mickey taking, singing, debate, poetry”.

 You know how some kids just love to talk about poop, sing about poop and call you a poop? That’s a form of communication play. Ever had the pleasure of listening in on a bunch of kids making up format-defying knock-knock jokes? Also communication play. What about the kid in a corner talking to the puppet on his own hand? Communication play! (also; me for the first year of secondary school). When I talk about playing with language, I am referring to a kind of communication play which, when seen through an autistic lens can fracture into multitudes of shapes and forms.

In spite of their wonder and complexity these forms of playing with language often go unnoticed or dismissed; especially when the adult’s viewpoint is skewed by the “functional language only” bias discussed above. If a child who uses language isn’t using words to communicate in the acceptable or ‘correct’ way, then it can be presumed they are doing that out of ignorance. When actually, they may be using their words exactly as they intended, you just don’t have the tools to recognise or to interpret it.

To help with this, I’m going to take a look at some of those shapes and forms of autistic wordplay that I’ve observed and experienced.

Talking as Stimming

Have you ever observed someone rolling a word around their mouth like a gobstopper? Most recently a conversation I was having with a young person came to a standstill as the word “booth” caught them. They elongated it, dragging out the ooooh and shortened it, expelling it like a cough. They altered the pitch wobbling it in the middle, smiled and giggled. This is where talking can be a form of stimming; more about sensing than communicating. Try it now; take a word and say it out loud, say it in your head whilst imagining saying it out loud, mouth it, taste it, spit it out quickly, stick out your tongue with it balanced right on the tip, almost falling… pull it back in, explore the entire surface, look for hidden cracks and fractures, get inside and discover what it’s really made off. Imagine doing all off this and not feeling silly or self-conscious, imagine this being something that brings you immense joy and satisfaction and then being made to feel silly or self-conscious.

[colourful line drawing with three variations of the same face saying ‘booth’. One looks up to the sky and whistles it, another sticks their tongue out and another shouts it]

As stimming can be used to fulfil a range of different needs talking as stimming is not always going to be about play, but it can be, particularly when the person stimming is relaxed and if they are happily responsive to or engaged in someone else joining in. What may start as stimming as a reaction to anxiety about being in a busy playground may become playful as it enables the child to relax and then morph into a part of the child’s play as they try out new words perhaps ones which relate to that which is happening around them. A child may smile and squeal as another speeds past them on a scooter a little closer than expected, and then beginning vocally stimming, saying ‘oh dear watch out oh dear watch out oh dear watch out” over and over again. To an outsider, based on the words and repetition alone, it may seem like the child is distressed but actually it might be a humorous comfortable and playful reaction.  If the above scooter-scenario happened to me right now I can guarantee my brain would shout ‘shocked and appalled, shocked and appalled, shocked and appalled.’ Just typing this is making heart is beating a little faster and a goofy smile appear on my face. It’s very unlikely I would actually be shocked and appalled, but this phrase is something my brain always goes too, likely because it amuses me. When I’m on a playground most of the time I would resist saying this aloud but if it was a child I knew, who also stim-talks I probably would, and it might become a playful exchange.

Scripting Anarchy

Anyone whose spent enough time around autistic people will probably have had the same conversation over and over again. Or will at least think they have. It might be exchanging the same few lines of dialogue from an episode of Thomas the Tank or it might be lines that you’ve learnt from the other person over time from an obscure sci-fi movie you’ve never actually seen. Someone might have a set of questions they ask again and again to get the same answers from you. Much like talking as stimming there is no one reason people do this, but it can be a part of play or a way into play with another person. It can also be a way to establish communication with someone to enable a different kind of play, or an invitation to bring someone else into the script.

When at its most playful this kind of scripting becomes subtly anarchic. You may find yourself in what you think is the same conversation but if you pay close attention there are small changes being made, little explorations and experiments. It may be the words themselves or the way they are delivered. The more you get to know someone the more you might find you can introduce a little anarchy yourself, you might change a word or mix in another concept. If the other person isn’t ready for this, they may well ignore it, that’s okay. A young person I know scripts with SpongeBob Square pants and a lot of the time they will ignore if I try to introduce a deviation. But on occasion, when they loudly sing “who lives in a pineapple under the sea” and I reply “Winnie the Pooh” (to the SpongeBob tune) it stops them in their tracks. They’ll give me a look that says; ‘challenge accepted’, and then we’re playing. We go back to the beginning of the script, both curious about what’s going to happen next, this time when I respond “SpongeBob square pants” it’s somehow funnier than the deviant version. This can go on and on and build and build. Imagine phrases and words as building blocks that are being stacked higher and higher in a tower; they can be knocked down suddenly, pushed slowly, intentionally picked up and placed upside down as an experiment to see if they will remain standing. The anticipation of a fall and element of surprise is part of the fun, but so is the different ways you can build, different colour and shape combinations. I’m not quite sure how to cram humour into this metaphor. But that’s there too, some of those blocks are real comedians.

[line drawing featuring a person in the corner with a concentrated look holding out a small building block. next to them towers a stack of different coloured blocks with scrawls on them.]

Audio collaging

For me this is the ultimate form of autistic word play. It can involve everything I’ve already written about here and so much more. It’s a perfect example of the idea of the sum being greater than the parts. The parts are those echolalic words and phrases, bits of scripting, intonation, pitch, speed, mutations, hums, shouts and whispers. The sum is a kind of audio-collage that contains all these parts but is heightened and expanded by the interactions between them. This can be solo play or collaborative. When it’s collaborative it’s neither monologue or dialogue but something else altogether. The player(s) will cut and paste concepts together, looping, repeating and rearranging. From the outside this might seem inscrutable or completely random, but it’s likely neither if you’re able to tune in; something that will take a lot of time, listening and detecting for most.

There are a few things that fuel this kind of play; sharing and exploring particular interests or ideas, making connections, playing with social conventions and expectations and humour.  The interest is often what starts the play off; chat about trains, Dora the explorer, road signs. Things which may seem mundane to someone who doesn’t share that interest but are a source of joy and inspiration to the individual. The connections are made through that out of the box or unexpected thinking, referencing another interest in an unexpected way. Exploring and discovering connections between things is something that is pleasing to many autistic people. When it comes to social conventions, despite popular belief, it’s not always the case that autistic people don’t recognise social conventions, often they just don’t see the point of following them or doing so causes stress and discomfort. For a child who spends all day at school trying to follow other people’s rules that aren’t intuitive to them, coming up with different answers to the questions “how are you” and acting it out with someone over and over might be very enjoyable.  Finally humour, perhaps the hardest thing to try and explain, because our personal sense of humour so intuitive. But there is definitely an anarchic, surreal and abstracted sense of humour that a lot of autistic people share and that can be a key part of this kind of play.

[Colourful line drawing of a person happily flapping their hands as different squiggles and shapes fly out of their mouth like fireworks. There is even a little surfer riding a yellow wave]

In Practice

If these are new ideas to you, well, that was probably a lot to take in. So I want to leave you with a few simple things you can keep in mind to facilitate and enable this kind of play and creativity.

Coping with repetition

A lot of people find repeated conversation, particularly questions annoying. If you feel that way then that’s okay, you’re definitely not alone. What is not okay is to treat the person who communicates and plays in this way as a nuisance. If you can’t engage then find a way to be honest about that, it might mean simply saying; “I’m sorry, I can’t do questions at the moment”. It may feel blunt or insensitive but its more damaging to act as if the person has done something wrong by ignoring them, talking over them or doing things like rolling your eyes and tutting. Feeling like the way you instinctually communicate, or play is wrong is extremely damaging to the individual. It’s also good to remember that autistic people spend a lot of time adapting to the way non-autistic people communicate and being expected to do so without question.

AAC & expressive communication

When someone uses a method of adaptive and augmentative communication (AAC), such as sign, sign assisted speech, pecs or a digital text to speech programme, the focus on making sure they use it correctly- where correctly means functionally- tends to be even heavier than with speech. Remember that they may use it for expressive communication too and they should be allowed to do this.

SpongeBob Who-Pants?

There’s a really easy way to engage and play with someone who communicates using echolalia and scripting; learn what they are talking about! It’s all already out there for you, often just a YouTube search away. Learn who Patrick or Peppa or Dora or Oliver is. (pink talking starfish best pal of SpongeBob SquarePants, Pig, Spanish speaking young girl with monkey friend, train friend of Thomas). Seeing a kids face light up when they realise you understand something about this world that they love and understand through is pure joy.

In Conclusion

Language can be a tool of play as well as pure communication, the term ‘word play’ is familiar to most of us, but the fact that it can mean so much maybe isn’t. Next time you come across a chid stim-talking, scripting and collaging… slow down, listen and see if you can tune in. If you’re lucky you might even get an invitation to join.

Creating inclusive play spaces: a place to start

If one hundred people wrote a guide to creating inclusive play spaces the result would be one hundred different guides. That’s no bad thing, they could be a hundred fantastic and useful guides filled with innovative and creative ideas, but, “inclusive” is not a fixed state. And as it is informed by multiple ever changing factors it never will be. I believe inclusion should be an ongoing collaboration amongst the people within a space, it’s about accepting that no one person will ever find the answer, only, an answer.

So, here, I want to share my thinking process and the ideas I use when I’m working to create play spaces and experiences which I want to be accessible to any child who comes into that space. It’s going to be a little messy and incomplete but, as it’s just one piece of that ongoing inclusion collaboration, messy and incomplete is exactly what it should be.

IMG_0064(1)

A “messy and incomplete” pirate ship. Photo shows a collection of tires, wooden pallets, rope and traffic barriers arranged to be a pirate ship. A black flag flies from a bamboo cane sticking out from an upturned giant flower pot. There are leaves from a tree and a brick building with lots of windows in the background.

Inclusion and Access

Firstly, I want to look at two terms, “Inclusion” and “Access”. They are sometimes used interchangeably and confusingly (by myself included) although they mean something different, so I’m going to define how I’m using them in this piece.

When I talk about “Inclusion” I’m referring to the idea that every individual should feel valued for not what they do, say, or look like but who they are. This extends to each individual being able to benefit from, contribute to and simply exist in the social, cultural and physical spaces we inhabit.

When I talk about “Access” I’m referring to the practical consequences of this ideology, the actions we take to try and make this ideology a reality. This includes everything from the way we design and build spaces to the language we use to describe peoples bodies to providing an option of subtitles for an instructional video.

It’s important to try and not confuse these concepts because we need them both. Inclusion needs access to become more than a set of ideas and access needs the foundations of inclusion to be effective.

 

Universal Play Space

There is a concept used in design and architecture called “Universal Design”. This means that when designing buildings, objects, graphic communication, parks etc. the designer will be working to make the product “as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation.” (http://www.universaldesign.com/what-is-ud/). A key aspect of this approach is that accessibility isn’t an afterthought but is integrated throughout the whole process. The outcome tends to be better design for everyone.

This is a concept I adapt and use working in play, let’s call it; The Universal Play Space. Following the concept of universal design, accessibility should never be an afterthought. Of course, the setting and how well you know the children you’re going to be working with will dictate what you know about the access needs of the children. It is unlikely that you’ll be able to predict every need when planning and preparing for a play session. But, here we have an advantage over the designer.

In design the designer will eventually step away from the product and the users will ultimately dictate what happens and how it is used but in play the playworker remains a part of the process. You, the playworker, have flexibility to adapt the session to children’s needs as they come up. This is perhaps not always obvious or easy as a task but willingness to do so, alongside play skills, experience and collaboration with your team and the children, give you a good chance.

Now, keeping the ideas of Inclusion, Access and the Universal Play Space in mind, let’s move on to the process of planning and preparing for a play session.

 

Play session planning

For the purposes of this article and in the hope of clarity I’m going to break down my process into three parts; finding, examining and adapting.

Part 1: Finding

Usually I have a lot of ideas and will draw from that idea bank when presented with a need. But I might also be presented with a need, such as planning something for a specific youth group, and then start searching for ideas, often consulting with the group. In the best situation the idea doesn’t come from you but a child. However you come to it though, at some point you will have an idea to work with. Perhaps messy outdoor play involving paint and sponges, or an imaginative play session with a ghostbusters theme. Now that you have this idea, you’ll likely have an image of that idea playing out in your head, it may be a very detailed scenario or something pretty vague. Either way the next step is to take that image and put it to one side.

This putting aside can be the hardest skill to learn. My experience in play is that you’ll find yourself surrounded by incredibly creative people who will come up with fantastic play ideas. Often the more invested we are in an idea the harder it is to put our image of it aside. I think this can be particularly challenging for those who practice art in some way because we’re so used to taking an idea from start to finish, often for personal enjoyment or satisfaction. But, with practice it can be done. And, in the context of the role of the playworker it is what we need to do because our initial image of an idea playing out isn’t what we’re ultimately aiming for.

IMG_0072(1)

Paint mixer. A blue barrel with a black plastic tube running through it which stands on two stacks of large black car tires. The structure stands on a blue tarp on top of grass. There is a grass lawn and more tyres pictured in the background. There is a jug  filled with yellow paint, a tub of red paint in the foreground. Splashes of paint are visible around the edge of the barrel

Part 2: Examining

Now that you have an idea and have set aside your personal expectations it’s time to examine that idea. The idea isn’t just the image you had of it playing out, it has unlimited possibilities and interpretations. Let’s look at the two examples from above.

For “Messy outdoor play with paint and sponges” we could think about; the exploration of colour and texture, finding new ways of interacting with the outside environment, the joy of mess in itself whether that’s creating a mess or becoming part of one, the sense of mischief that comes from getting away with something, the physical aspect of playing with sponges, throwing them, squishing them, jumping on them.

For “imaginative play with ghostbusters theme” we have; creating and sharing story lines, reimagining a familiar environment, exploring different social roles, designing and making props, directing and negotiating with others, experimenting with emotions like feeling scared or brave, running, jumping, crawling, hiding games, observing others at play.

When you start to explore and discover all these different aspects of one single play idea it becomes much easier to understand how that play idea can work for any child whatever their access needs. It comes down to what we all know but in practice, with the anxiety that comes along with wanting to ‘get things right’, we can forget; there is no one right way to play. Examining ideas like this enables you to have a broader understanding of what a child is actually experiencing in play and therefore what you could do to enable another child to share that experience in their own way.

IMG_1902

Photo taken from above shows three red buckets each with a different mix of bark, leaves, sand and water inside. The buckets are sitting on top of a slatted wooden bench and there is grass and dirt visible in the background.

Part 3: Adapting

Having examined your idea you can again conjure up your image of how this is going to play out. How has it changed from the beginning of this process? Some of these changes might affect the way you set up an activity and the resources you gather.

For the messy paint and sponge play you may have initially been thinking about just having large quantities of paint for children to dip sponges in and throw but now you’re also considering how a certain child may not appreciate the tactile sensory side of the play but may still want to explore colour. You might make sure you have multiple colours available and pallets to mix in as well as long handled painting implements and perhaps an option of gloves to wear.

For the ghostbusters activity you may have been thinking about a structured chasing and catching game with defined roles but in examining the idea you might have thought about a child who finds these kinds of games stressful but they may really enjoy creating scripts or movies by themselves. Here you might be able to set up an ‘observation booth’ area in the playground where no ghosts or ghostbusters can go but the child can view what’s happening and perhaps film or give directions to the children in the game.

You will likely make adaptations to the preparation and planning in this way but the majority of adaptations will be made in the moment when the play is happening and you observe a child getting frustrated about not understanding a game and struggling to join in, or perhaps trying to do something completely different with an activity but needing permission or assistance.  This is where you step in, use your skills, imagination and explorations to make this a play space for that child. Remember, you are the most flexible part of this process.

IMG_0454

Photo shows two ghosts made from bubble wrap with blank silver cd’s as eyes hanging from a wooden structure. There is a brightly coloured parachute in the back ground and the ground is green astro turf.

To Summarise:

FIND a play idea, identify your expectations of how the idea might play out and set these aside.

EXAMINE the idea, think of different ways a child might experience the play with different senses, interests, abilities and access needs.

ADAPT to incorporate these different possibilities. Where possible anticipate interests and access needs of the children and prepare for them in your planning. In the moment use your flexibility as a playworker to enable each child to experience the play.

I like to sum up this approach with the statement:

There’s no such thing as just climbing a tree.

Climbing trees seems to be this quintessential childhood play experience for so many people and for a child who can’t physically do this those people might see a huge barrier to play. This is where we need to set aside our personal expectations, and look at what ‘climbing a tree’ actually is. When we do that we discover so many different aspects to an experience that someone can be a part of. In a playground setting that may be finding other ways to experience heights and risk, creating a sensory space using bark, leaves and sticks or using video technology to experience different viewpoints. Remember each child’s play is valuable and valid.

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Image of a black pen and pencil drawing of a colourful tree. There is red text at the bottom of the images saying “Just Climbing a tree?”. There is a child in the tree partially obscured by leaves and branches. the child has light brown skin and dark brown long hair with streaks of purple. They are smiling with there arms in hanging to one side with one foot on a branch.  The image is covered in captions which say; hear the wind in the branches, be by yourself, see if you can reach the clouds, conspiring with nature, being up high, hide, smelling the leaves, looking down and feeling sick, feel the bark against your skin, explore colours and patterns, break the rules, surprise yourself or others, take a risk, be a monkey, feel scared, getting  a different point of view and feel you skin stretch and muscles strain.

Putting this into practice

“Inclusion” often rings hollow to people because it’s seen as a far of ideology rather than a way of doing things. This means Inclusion often becomes tokenistic, because people put things into practice in the name of inclusion whilst not truly believing in it as a concept. I still don’t have a grand solution but as I stated at the beginning of this article I wholeheartedly believe inclusion needs collaboration to work and I hope this piece of writing can be a part of that. I also stated that “Inclusion” is not a fixed thing, in my own practice my focus is often disability and access but need to continually step back and remember all the other essential factors which could include gender identity and expression, sex, race, religion, class, sexual orientation, migrant status and language. A lot of this kind of work is accepting what you don’t know and unlearning what you think you do know. Which, doesn’t come naturally to most of us.

All that said, I want to leave you with some things that I do know.

Inclusion is not just a matter of practicality, it’s a matter of heart. Just making sure a kid in a wheelchair can get into the playground doesn’t mean they’ll feel like they belong there. Just because you don’t stop a kid from jumping and flapping doesn’t mean they’ll feel free. Using alternative communication in the play space won’t necessarily make a kid feel like their ideas and feelings matter.

All these things are important and essential but they won’t do alone.

Inclusion is about the way we think about each other and how this translates to our relationships and the spaces we create and inhabit together. So when you’re thinking about how to make your practice inclusive, before anything else, you need to examine that thought. Why do I want to do this? What do I think inclusion means? What are my experiences of inclusion and exclusion? Each of us has been conditioned to think about the world in a certain way. In my experience of disability it was a narrative that centred loss, sadness and a life somehow less valuable or worth living. A narrative that I wholeheartedly and absolutely dismiss but need to be continually aware of to understand and recognise how it may impact on my thinking and behaviour.

Doing this kind of thinking can be difficult but is a necessary part of inclusion that stops it being a far off ideology and makes it a tool we can use to each make our practice and life so much better. And then? It’s time to collaborate and create.

I’ll see you on the playground!