Laugh, Play and Thrive - Engaging and Guiding Neurodiverse Children through Fun and Play | Simon da Roza

Issue 21: Laugh, Play and Thrive - Engaging and Guiding Neurodiverse Children through Fun and Play | Simon da Roza

Simon daRoza's article explores the transformative power of fun, play, and laughter in nurturing neurodiverse children's curiosity, resilience, and emotional well-being, offering practical strategies and insights for joyful parenting and family connections.

Simon da Roza
Simon da Roza
This article was published in Dystinct Magazine Issue 21 May 2024.
Simon da Roza is the Principal Consultant at Exceptional Learners []

The thing that can help you navigate the demands of parenting a neurodiverse child is often the very first thing that quietly slips away in the early days. The days of sleep deprivation, unknowing, loneliness and frustration that many experience. I have found that a sense of humour, creativity, laughing at myself, and distracting kids with humour or cheeky, mischievous ideas are secrets that have helped me guide and support complex and challenging kids to find the sparkle of curiosity and a sense of fun.

Joy shifts minds from that moment and emotion and connects them with the fun they have had before. Okay, insert enjoyable moments if 'fun' feels unobtainable, and that's okay.

We wear many hats: advocates, translators, interpreters, negotiators, time management experts, nurses, teachers, caregivers, problem-solvers, and the cool, calm, collected parents we expect of ourselves in the face of societal judgment. Then there are our other roles in life, such as colleagues, siblings, children, etc. Let's add in the expectations and standards we hold of ourselves.

Love what we do at Please support us by Subscribing here!

Our time-poor lives are very serious as we manage the family's needs and concerns. It is exhausting, and underlying resentment between parents is an absolute fun and play killer. It isn't about having a super doper attitude and faking it till you make it. No, that isn't the expectation. Fun and play can be the release valve the whole family requires to reset itself. Attempting to carve out some fun or laugh at yourself is a robust emotional regulation and opportunity.

Fun is being fully present with no intentional goal. Fun is that energy you feel in which the curious mind is set free to explore. Fun is hope and possibility. It can be experienced individually or as a shared moment. There is a creative element, and something may be created, but it is not the intention and expression of the moment of the flow of imagination at play. Fun is acting on the inspiration of the moment.

Ask almost any child how their day was, and inevitably, it would revolve around the fun they did or didn't have at recess or lunchtime.

I took photos of the giant waves crashing over the rocks at Whale Beach one windy summer day. I ventured out carefully, grabbed some slow-motion shots, and headed back, aware of the ocean's dangers. I scuttled back, peering over my shoulder at the angry ocean along the outside edge of the swimming pool. I jumped off the edge and heard myself say, "That was fun.' Those words seemed so alien to me. Now, I have fun in my profession, and I'm a bit of a mischievous, fun-loving adult, but I wondered how long it had been since I had honestly had real fun. Running ultra-marathons for me was indeed fun, though many often reminded me that I was deranged or worse, it didn't stop me. My knees stopped me, oh and maybe my ankles too.

Fun is individual, and your sense of fun and your child's sense of fun will also be unique. Tuning in and adjusting to your child's sense of 'fun' is crucial in developing a bond and a collection of memories that will build the resilience to overcome the challenges this world amply provides.

So, how do we align with our child's sense of fun? Go into their world, play in their world, their imagination without comment, judgment or boundaries. At first, it may be sitting in the same space doing individual things or playing in individual ways. No questions, sparse factual comments, or even positive comments because that involves judgment and takes away from the thing just 'being'. So worthwhile as it helps them accept who they are and what they do. There will be a shift and acceptance of your presence or the start of cooperative play in their time, not yours or the world’s, but in their time. Avoid demanding anything from the child; by that, I mean even asking questions like, 'What are you doing?' takes away from them actually doing what they want to do. Watch and observe and let the child have control of this moment. Let them set the tone, and give the instructions verbally or non-verbally through actions that invite you to participate. It may be a fleeting moment or an extended time; be there as long as you can, as often as you can and reflect upon it later in the day or week, sharing the enjoyment or moment with them or perhaps even what you may do next time. Experience their world at their pace and repeat.

Real fun and real play do not take part on a screen (maybe if it is a multiplayer game or a sandbox). The words' game', 'fun' and 'play' have been hijacked by businesses that want to keep your child's attention, and sometimes it is just easier to let them have some screen time; I get it; avoid feeling guilty, but it is missing essential elements to call it real play, real fun. For autistic individuals or those with autism, having control as they do on a screen game can help them transition and be calming. Screens may be the only thing they are engaged in; they go into that world in these situations. It isn't ideal, but it is where the kids are at. Start slowly building within your child the expectations that you will not judge but just be present. Swing that pendulum into their world, and maybe, just maybe, it will swing back towards another activity in which the process and conditions are the same.

Explorative play doesn't have goals and objectives. Products or fleeting moments are by-products of the creative spirit spontaneously being released through the magic of play.
"Let's build a sandcastle." It is as goal-orientated as play can be. How that sandcastle evolves is unique.

The difference is in the creativity and the solutions your child comes up with; they are not unique or original. They have already been predicted and coded by the creator. To that point, building Lego can be fun and playful, but genuine fun would be building from your imagination, creating something unique to the narrative of an imaginative story. In actual play, there is no control; instructions control the building of the piece, but playing with the object once completed would be more aligned with play.

While there may be a winner and a loser in board games, running games, puzzles, etc, the objective is clear to participants. In these games, the fun element is being right in the moment with another player. Competition can be fun, but it is only one aspect of games.

On-screen games and social media may allow them to think they are winning. The games and social media are crafted to 'onboard' you with early achievable success, drawing you into the game. They keep you there using variable reward systems, which release dopamine at the right time to keep you engaged. The coders and marketers manipulate their attention without your or their consent. They use behavioural science to manipulate your child into thinking they are in control.

Gamification components are making their way into more aspects of our everyday lives to change our behaviours; notice the smiley face display on the side of the road when you are below the speed limit. While the rebellion in some of us may speed just over, most of the population is 'happy' to comply, as we should, but feel good about it, triggering a dopamine response. Gamification is evident in rewards systems and frequent flyer programs. It is evident in 'likes' and 'streaks' in social media. Attention is a currency. That is not really fun, but because it may result in a release of dopamine and makes you feel momentarily good, that is not fun, and that is often more palatable as it is not perceived as a threat by the brain. Real play is a game in which the playing experience provides joy. Real fun may involve some moments of boredom, which catalyses the mind to wonder and imagine; let your kids get bored!

Fun is one of the most important and underrated ingredients in any successful venture. If you're not having fun, then it's probably time to call it quits and try something else.
Richard Branson.

This quote by the renowned entrepreneur emphasises the critical role of fun in any successful endeavour, highlighting its importance in maintaining passion and motivation.

If you never did, you should. These things are fun, and fun is good.
Dr. Seuss.

Dr Seuss, known for his whimsical and playful writing, captures the essence of fun as something inherently good and worthwhile, encouraging experimentation and trying new things.

This post is for paying subscribers only


Already have an account? Log in