girls playing on a white table

“Parallel play was observed as one of the most frequent play states for autistic children in free play settings.”

We updated our “Flow” and “Parallel Play” glossary pages with selections from “Diversity in Autistic Play: Autistic Adults’ Experiences | Autism in Adulthood”.

Parallel Play

Some participants described potential differences in social play between autistic and non-autistic people. A few participants described autistic social play as play that takes place in close proximity to others but without requirement for interaction or collaboration. This is akin to parallel play (e.g., Parten). For example, Fiona commented: 

What I considered social play isn’t necessarily what other children would. So, for me social play is ‘I’m going to do my drawing here and you’re gunna sit next to me and do your drawing next to me and we might have a chat and look at each other’s drawings’ … to me that is social because you’re together, you’re doing an activity.

Here, Fiona demonstrates her awareness of how her definition of social play is different from other people’s. Similarly, Robert articulated that “social play for autistic people … was actually just being with the group of people and interacting with them from time to time, but actually, almost kind of doing your own thing and being on the side-lines”.

A few participants described their tendency or preference toward playing in smaller groups. Jason “really struggled to enjoy play [sic] with more than one person”. One participant reflected that this preference represents a difference between autistic and non-autistic play: “ours are normally more … smaller groups I would say” (Peter).

Diversity in Autistic Play: Autistic Adults’ Experiences | Autism in Adulthood

Many autistic adults discussed their preferences in social play, which relate to social play differences and who they preferred to play with. We found some potential social play differences, such as some preferring smaller groups and some autistic adults describing autistic social play as similar to parallel play. More specifically, this is characterized by close proximity and no requirement for interaction (although this may take place). This fits most closely with Parten’s concept of parallel play, although we recognize the tensions with applying non-autistic definitions to describe autistic experiences: it is important to base the definition of parallel play for this study on autistic people’s views.

This finding corroborates Fahy et al.’s study in which autistic children were often observed to play in close proximity, although in their study the children’s social play took on different forms, and this did not necessarily involve parallel play. This also echoes previous research in which parallel play was observed as one of the most frequent play states for autistic children in free play settings. Nonetheless, the findings of the current study highlight that for some, autistic social play is like parallel play, and it is important to view this as a social play preference that is different from but not “less” than forms of social play that are usually viewed as more interactive and superior by non-autistic people.

Diversity in Autistic Play: Autistic Adults’ Experiences | Autism in Adulthood


Most autistic adults in this study experienced a flow state in relation to their play, involving intense focus on a play activity for a long time and possibly an altered sense of the passage of time. Intense focus is the defining characteristic of flow, and our findings, combined with previous research, suggest that this is also a defining characteristic of autistic play flow experiences. More broadly, the combination of previous research support and our finding that a couple of participants viewed the experience of flow as a difference between autistic and non-autistic play suggests that autistic engagement in flow is a potential characteristic of at least some autistic people’s play. As highlighted by previous research, autistic people’s engagement in flow may be a consequence of monotropism, where autistic people’s intensely focused attention on few interests or activities means immersion in an activity and entering into a flow state is more likely. As play may be a form of interest, it is therefore unsurprising that many autistic people experience flow during play.

We also found that many experienced both benefits and limitations of flow, which suggests that for autistic people, flow has a dual nature. Our finding of mental benefits of flow, including relaxation, suggests that this experience could be important for autistic people’s well-being. However, autistic adults also discussed the negative impact of flow on aspects of everyday life, particularly self-care, which others have highlighted. Our findings parallel those of Pavlopoulou et al.,particularly in relation to the negative impact of flow on sleeping and eating. We build on this research by also highlighting relaxation as a specific benefit of flow. Overall, the findings suggest that it is important to acknowledge the dual nature of flow relating to autistic people’s play experiences.

Diversity in Autistic Play: Autistic Adults’ Experiences | Autism in Adulthood

Monotropism Questionnaire

If you relate to the above, take the Monotropism Questionnaire.

Further Reading






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