By Quincy Hansen
When I was younger I used to like to sit on the floor with a bug bucket full of Matchbox cars, rubber animals, and other small toys. I’d take out each object one after the other and use them to make a line of toys. I’d spend a long time lining up my toys and I would even get very upset if someone messed up the line. I once kicked out a window because I was so upset after my sister messed up a line of cars I had been organizing along a baseboard.
Lining up objects in this fashion is a classic and somewhat stereotypical autism characteristic and it makes me happy whenever I see people posting about their autistic kids happily lining up their toys across the floor. Despite this, though, in the past I’ve been struggling to remember why exactly I lined up my toys.
I stopped lining objects up like that in early elementary school and for a while I couldn’t remember what had been motivating me to put my toys in a line. Not remembering the 'why' has really bothering me because I take great pride in being able to explain to people what it’s like to be autistic and why I (and potentially their kids) do the things that we do.
More recently, though, I’ve realized that I haven’t really stopped “lining things up,” even if I don’t make lines of toys on the floor anymore. And through this realization, I now know why I lined things up: to keep my world in a state of order.
Let me explain what I mean with an example.
One of my biggest interests right now is taxonomy, specifically biological taxonomy. Taxonomy is how scientists classify living things. Organisms are categorized into smaller and smaller groups, progressively narrowing down broad traits into more and more specific traits until at the very end you get to the classification of individual species. (Though, nowadays taxonomic categories are based more on evolutionary relationships than they are on morphological traits, but that’s a discussion for another time).
Taxonomy fascinates me. I could talk all day about phyla and genera, how different families are defined, how scientists are currently debating the correct placement of various living and extinct species. It’s super nerdy, but I find it to be incredibly comforting.
Why is this?
It’s something that’s well ordered, and therefore soothing. My world is chaotic and confusing, and so my brain finds respite in what can be ordered. I no longer line up toys, but I line up species instead.
Previously, I have written on my blog, speakingofautism.com, about the “Intense World Theory of Autism.” Essentially, the Intense World Theory states that autism comes from the fact that autistic people experience the world, on an emotional and sensory level, as more intense than non-autistic people.
Although I doubt it covers the whole story, the Intense World Theory makes a lot of sense to me. The way I perceive the world certainly is intense, confusing, chaotic, and unpredictable. Therefore, my brain craves order and to be grounded.
Much of what I do and did, including lining up my toys and other related things, help provide that order.
A big part of autism is what some may call “repetitive and stereotyped behaviors and/or interests.” I definitely fit this category. I stim in all sorts of ways for various different purposes, such as emotional and sensory regulation.
I have the stereotypical set of “special interests” that I hyper-focus on. There are things that must be done in a specific way lest I become overwhelmed with anxiety. And, yes, I line things up; both physically and within my mind.
Now, for a long time, and even frequently today, such repetitive “behaviors” are often described as “non-functional.” Many assume that they have no purpose, or no value to the autistic person and are simply neurotic behaviors that must be eliminated at all costs.
This sentiment irritates me greatly, because it is not only incredibly wrong, but can be incredibly damaging when it is actually applied.
As I revealed earlier, many of these so called “stereotyped” actions do serve the important role of keeping me grounded and stabilizing a chaotic world.
A common example of this is the often repeated fact that stimming can be soothing, and helps keep oneself grounded. Fortunately, it seems that recently the broader autism community (including more than just autistic people) has begun accepting some of these actions as having a useful purpose. For example, stimming is now more broadly accepted as evidenced by the fact that there is less pressure now from therapists to “eliminate” stimming than there used to be.
However, recently I’ve been seeing quite a bit on Twitter and other places of people who are talking about the “importance” of making sure that autistic children “play the right way” or are “interested in the correct things.”
Despite the fact that they aren’t autistic themselves, they insist that autistic children shouldn’t be allowed to line up their toys or to have specific interests in narrow areas. The argument for this seems to be nothing more than “it’s not what allistic children do, therefore it must be wrong and hurting their development.”
This sort of thinking is rooted in the idea that what is typical is automatically correct for all people, that deviations from the norm are bad. However, it completely ignores the purpose that these repetitive actions have for autistic people.
Honestly, though, what difference does it make if a kid is lining up their toys? I would argue that there really is no objective way to play, and lining up toys probably plays an important role in helping said child process the world.
We need to stop pathologizing repetitive play. I say, be happy when someone lines up their toys, repeats their words, flaps their hands, or focuses deeply on their interests.
There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong about these just because they don’t fit the neurotypical standard.
We autistic people often line up our toys, line up our words, and line up our interests to calm the chaotic world. By expecting autistic people to “play the right way,” or not stim, or have the right interests, something valuable and important is taken from that autistic person.
I hope that by reading this, you can understand an autistic perspective a little bit better, and maybe allow an autistic person in your life the freedom of a well-ordered world.
Quincy Hansen is an autistic 17-year-old that has his own collection of blogs on his website here.
As the loving grandmom of a 15 yr old (probably) autistic female, I found this article to be very well written, and reassuring. I say ‘probably’ because her behaviors since about age 2 have been erratic and often baffling to various drs, and those of us who love her. She has undergone scores of tests and assessments and some years is on the the spectrum, and some years not.
I’m going to subscribe to this blog and pass along the info to her and her parents. Every new bit of info helps, so thanks for your writing.