Two people sit back to back on a floor, one reading a book, the other reading a tablet

Parallel Play

Parallel play: some people call this being alone together, as in when you’re both reading your own books in the same room, or one person is doing a puzzle while another plays a video game, etc. Just existing together counts too.


Header image credit: “Parallel Play” by Betsy Selvam is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

We enjoy parallel play and shared activities that don’t require continual conversation. When we talk, it gets deep quickly. We discuss what’s real, our struggles, fears, desires, obsessions. We appreciate a good infodump, and there’s no such thing as oversharing. We swap SAME stories — sharing a time when we felt similarly in our own life, not as a competition, but to reflect how well we are listening to each other.

Lost in Translation: The Social Language Theory of Neurodivergence | by Trauma Geek | Medium

I want to spend time in parallel existence with you; let’s be alone together.

neurowonderful — neurowonderful: They’re here! Because you…

There’s something so nice about just existing in the same space with someone. Just getting to spend time with them and maybe you do something together or maybe you do homework while they play a game and you both have headphones on. There’s no expectations for anyone to do anything. It’s just nice to be there, no matter what happens.

Colonel Meme – There’s something so nice about just existing in…

Parallel play is when people do separate activities with each other, not trying to influence each others behavior. I like socializing and I get lonely; I like company even though I don’t like group activities, group conversations, group games, small talking, or large groups in general… I prefer being in someone’s company while doing my own activity. It is much less mentally taxing. With parallel play, I can be myself and communicate when I want to.

Parallel Play and Autism | GENDERVOID MEGAVERSE

If you imagine that an autistic kid at school is likely to be wrenched out of their attention tunnel multiple times every day, each time leading to disorientation and deep discomfort, you are on your way to understanding why school environments can be so stressful for many autistic students. If you can avoid contributing to that, you may find that you have an easier time with your autistic students: try entering into their attention tunnel when you can, rather than tugging them out of it. Parallel play is one powerful tool for this; start where the child is, show interest in what they’re focused on. If you do need to pull them out of whatever they’re focusing on, it’s best to give them a bit of time.

Craft, Flow and Cognitive Styles

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).9 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’s9 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.’s31 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.47 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.8,9

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

Parallel play is a neurodivergent love locution.

Further reading,