Autistic kids spending time lining up toys is a good thing.
Most autistic adults who read this will probably think “yeah, duh, of course it is.” But I’m guessing non-autistics may be a little surprised. According to the pathology paradigm, every aspect of autism is a bad thing, so why should autistic kids be allowed to engage in “meaningless” behavior instead of doing what adults think is fun?
This post is for non-autistics, parents especially, who want to understand autistic behavior.
I used to be an autistic kid. (Now I’m an autistic adult.) While I didn’t line up toys so much, I did very similar repetitive activities:
- Walking in circles around an object, often touching it repetitively
- Swinging on swings for long periods of time
- Organizing my stuffed cats by criteria I invented
- Carefully developing a village of Lego houses, without playing out stories
- Organizing my rock collection and cataloging the properties of each rock in a notebook
While some non-autistic people might have viewed these activities as “unproductive,” my parents let me do my own thing and didn’t worry about it. And you know what? I’m very glad they did.
While a non-autistic kid might not see much point to these activities, to me, they were important. So today I’m going to give an insider’s perspective on why these are good.
- Repetitive behavior in a calm environment suggests an active mind.
- Autistic kids need to relax.
- Parents benefit by having kids play quietly.
Speaking as a former autistic kid, I’m glad I spent so much time swinging, organizing things, and doing other repetitive activities. I still do them today, and they help me feel better about myself and my life.
Because even if the body’s movements seem limited, the mind is not.
Active body, active mind
My rituals were repetitive, but my thoughts weren’t confined to the rituals. Instead, while I repeated familiar activities, I let my mind wander. I pondered the nature of the universe, processed events in my life, and imagined alternate realities.
Here are some of the things I remember thinking about:
- Mentally preparing myself for moving house (one of my first memories actually)
- Imagining an intricate world in which houses are on stilts and people travel by canoe
- Determining why the sky is darker on top and lighter near the horizon (This was in elementary school. I’m having a hard time explaining it so I included a diagram.)
- The story I was writing
So when you see an autistic kid engaging in repetitive behavior, instead of thinking “that kid is doing nothing,” think “that kid’s brain is hard at work.” They may be imagining something, reviewing something that happened, or trying to figure out the answer to a question.
Is lining up toys productive? Not really.
But are the thoughts in your kid’s head productive? Probably.
Repetitive actions are often correlated with the mind being deep in thought. And that’s a good thing.
Kids need to relax
My body instinctively knows what I need to do to relax. Stimming helps me regulate my focus and emotions. And looking at a bunch of pretty lined-up flowers does feel nice.
Long stimming sessions are often restorative, similar to taking a solitary walk or a long bath. I’m engaging in a familiar, pleasant activity that can help me feel good.
If an autistic kid is sitting on the floor quietly lining up their toys, it’s probably helping them calm down and feel at peace. Unless they’re ruminating about something stressful, then they’re likely to feel calmer and more centered afterwards.
Autistic kids are especially vulnerable to stress. Emotion dysregulation and the stress of living in a confusing and intense non-autistic world can be a lot to handle. It doesn’t help that autistics are at increased risk of bullying and abuse, adding more difficulties to a life that is challenging enough already.
Researchers now believe that stress levels in early childhood may predict future skills. While it’s hard for me to speculate what my life could have looked like under different circumstances, I can say with certainty that my abilities at the moment are correlated with the stress I am under. (Clarity of speech, clarity of mind, motor skills, all of it varies with stress.)
Relaxation time is good for everyone. For autistics, it’s crucial.
Daily relaxation time (ideally an hour or more in my opinion) can be the difference between a cranky, over-stressed person and one who is able to stay fairly calm.
Quiet playtime helps parents and caregivers too
Are you a caregiver of an autistic child? Can they engage in repetitive activities for half an hour or longer?
Congratulations! You get free time!
Quiet playtime is good for caregivers as well as kids. When you don’t have to pay attention to your child, this gives you time for…
- Household chores
- Paying attention to other children (if any)
- Enjoying a few quiet minutes to yourself
- Searching for your peace of mind (try checking under the couch cushions)
My dad raised 3 kids, one autistic and one with Down syndrome, while Mom worked. I have a feeling he liked it very much when I went to the basement to organize my Lego village or sat in my room rearranging my rock collection. Because when I did, he didn’t need to worry about me and he could do his own thing.
Some parents feel like they need to be a constant presence in their kids’ lives. But that’s not healthy for anyone. Eventually you’re going to get tired of your precious angel’s little face, and your precious angel will probably get tired of you too.
So next time the autistic person in your house goes off to do their own repetitive thing, you can smile and be glad they’re doing it.
A little alone time is a good thing, for child and caregiver. Embrace it. Your kid is relaxing. Maybe you can relax a little too.
If you’re a parent or caregiver, then learn to appreciate your kid’s stims. These stims are helping them stay calm and think things through. If it’s a safe activity, then let it be.
If you’re autistic, then please engage in as much repetitive behavior as you want. Focus on safe behavior (not unhealthy stuff like skin-picking or hair-pulling) and develop a repertoire of healthy stims you can use.
Stimming, when done safely, is a gift. Use it. Appreciate it. Make the best of autism and live your best life.