Identifying & Accepting Happy Autistic Kids at the Playground

Tell me the truth: What would your reaction be, if you encountered a kid like Leo endlessly pacing a playground structure as in the video below? If you didn't read this blog, or blogs like it; if you didn't have your own Leo, if you weren't a variation on Leo yourself? Would you back away awkwardly from the weird kid while scanning the perimeter for his adult? Would you tell your own children in an intentionally over-loud voice, "well, I don't know what he's doing so we'll wait until he's all done"?

Or would you relax into his joy, recognize it, accept that pacing a circuit is some kids' idea of The Very Best Fun?

(Please tell me it's the latter. I've been busting my ass just a little bit for Autism Acceptance Month. More below.)


At Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, Our Slice of Life: All Autistics Autism Acceptance Month series continues to rock on, showcasing autistics of all ages and abilities -- so stay tuned and keep reading (Leo may make an appearance).

From the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network: All Done Autism Acceptance:
I did not start out from a place of acceptance. As a disability community outsider and a fairly non-intuitive person, I lacked the context, experience, and insight to see past our society’s too-prevalent autism stereotypes of pity and parental burdens. I never knew anyone who identified as Autistic, never realized the full variation of the autistic experience, never considered that autism did not have to preclude Leo from living a full and happy life. Thankfully, the online and offline worlds are alight with autism acceptance trail blazers — autistics of course, professionals and parents too. They have not only shown me the way, but shown me incredible patience along the way (I’m not always the best listener). And I remain mindful that I still have much to learn about autism, and that much of that learning will come from Leo himself.
From an interview with Annie Fox about Thinking Person's Guide to Autism:
What we try to do in our book is help people learn to think critically and rationally about autism even when they are in the midst of this whirlwind of new information. So many parents are so distraught when they learn their child is diagnosed with autism. We want to help them through that. And we want to let them know that even though the media tends to perceive people with autism and special needs like this lightning bolt of ‘bad luck,’ people with special needs are part of our community. They’ve always been here. This is just another way of being. These people need more understanding. Yes! They need more support. Yes! But that doesn’t make them “other” or “less than.” These are families that need compassion and understanding, but not pity. We want to help people get past fear, myths and negative stereotypes.
The good folks at Babble Toddler Times wanted input about early intervention and autism (they also wanted advice for other paents to feature -- I suggested an autistic autism parent, but the logistics did not work out):
My advice is threefold: Find a pediatrician who takes your concerns seriously, find positive, evidence-based autism resources and role models (this is exactly why we created Thinking Person's Guide to Autism), and try to understand that your child's behavior is a form of communication. Our kids deserve to achieve their potential, but can easily get left behind if their unique needs are not properly identified and addressed early on. Autism experts can help us recognize where our kids need help — be it with communication, self-help, academics, or social skills — and the best strategies for supporting their needs. 
And in a bit of a surprise, Babble named this site one of their Top 30 Autism Blogs of 2012. Frankly, Thinking Person's Guide to Autism would have been a better choice (also, Leo and I never met Steve Jobs, though my spy network says he really liked Leo's part in the Apple iPad video) -- but being included is flattering, and I'm grateful. (And you should vote for TPGA for next year!)

Finally, we've had TPGA interviews for a ton of additional radio stations: KCBS-AM San Francisco, WSNJ-AM Philadelphia, WVNE-AM Boston, WYRQ-FM Minneapolis, WOND-AM Philadelphia, WQYK-FM Tampa, and four more coming. Mali and Leo heard the local interview with Jeff Bell; Mali was so impressed that she waited until the segment was over before demanding I put her Goblet of Fire audio book back on. Should you ever need to get the word out about a book, I hope you'll be fortunate enough to enlist the services of the phenomenal Media Masters Publicity -- we have them to thank for these radio spots!


  1. When my kids were little, I purposefully took them to a park and school playground where the special needs elementary school was. I wanted then to see others who were not the same as they were. I wanted them to find acceptance, empathy and understanding beyond the walls of our home. I did not sit back and watch, I joined them to show them that the other children, of ALL capabilities, were not anything to be scared of. And I can say, with all honesty, that those few years of playground fun made a huge impact on their lives. They have autistic and Down's friends at school. They do not make fun of or shy away from those who are different in any way, unless they are violent (which gee, my kids can be sometimes, too). The only time I stepped in was when a young man was banging his already bruised forehead on the metal playground equipment and asked the teacher if they waited for blood before they tried to redirect him (yes, sarcasm was my choice because the supervisors were not paying any attention to him and it ticked me off). Leo is welcome to come walk circles around anything that will make him happy in our world!!!

  2. Oh wow, what a great video. That pacing looks delicious (delicious is a food word, but acceptable here because I refer to a pleasurable and nutritious component of one's sensory diet). There's a certain size of circle you can pace - the one Leo's doing here looks about perfect for his height - that gives you a sensation of pressure in your body, when you find yourself leaning inward to stay on course. It's difficult to describe - maybe you know the science concept that causes this? Is it centrifugal force or something?

    (If you're curious, you can probably experience something like what Leo experiences by walking in circles of various size until you find the one that feels best, though I'm not sure how it will feel in your body and brain)

  3. My daughter doesn't stim--usually. Recently, she's started talking with a friend on the phone, and if she's not talking while on the computer (while her friend and her check out a site), I've noticed that she walks around the dining room table while she chit-chats away. It actually looks very similar to what Leo is doing on the video.

  4. There isn't much more harmless then someone walking circuits! It's not like he or she is bullying anyone. I know of a kid who used to made repetitious hand movements - why? To see and contemplate how the muscles and bones work! Such activities are often done for a reason even if we don't know why :)

  5. Before I had my child, before I saw his beautiful movements, before I knew ... I would have to say (and I'm guessing) that I thought he was playing out a game of some sort even though I couldn't tell what it was. Somehow that it made sense for him. I'm not saying that to make me look good or some nonsense, but I hope that gives you (as it gives me) comfort in the many views of our children.

    Also, your site rocks. As does TPGA's.

  6. Thanks folks -- hope reserves renewed, thanks to all y'all. And Zoe, I'll be trying to find that circle!

  7. What would I have thought?
    He looks like an ordinary kid doing ordinary kid stuff.

    And the "intentionally over-loud voice"?
    Sounds like an arrogant, ignorant, insensitive boor.
    The nicest thing I can say.

  8. Dang! Lost my comment! Here I go again!

    Loved the video. I would have thought nothing of what Leo was doing.

    My nephew, 22, is autistic. He paced my living room constantly while he dictated his soon-to-be-released short novel for kids, The Magic Quest.

    Zoe, I will have to try your pacing idea one of these days myself, after the flu is gone.

    Shannon, I just received my copy of TPGA, and I love hearing from so many different people. I wish I had had a book like this back in 1981, when I had my first student with autism. The best thing I learned from him and his family was to LISTEN. But I needed to know so much more!d

  9. I think it's great, and it would not bother me at all.

  10. Anonymous4:13 AM

    This is why I think that the whole high/low functioning label doesn't always stick... my "high functioning" Aspie looks exactly like this on the playground. Like Zoe said, to me it looks like a fun game and a happy one at that.

    - Hanne

  11. So, seeing Leo's circuit, I think of it as EXACTLY how you described it-- a kid's idea of The Very Best Fun.
    I am the mom of one very young child who's not on the spectrum. We were at a local playground a weekend or two ago, and there was a boy who was doing a repetitive circuit that was much larger than Leo's. However, he was moving smaller kids out of the way to complete it, and was a bit rough with some other kids. This made me a little bit nervous, because I was worried he might move one of the smaller kids to a part of the structure that was less safe for them, if that makes sense...

  12. If Leo was touching or in any way possibly endangering smaller kids, I would have gently redirected him. As a playground ambassador for all our kids, it's incredibly important that his right to quirkiness stays firmly within the realm of peaceful coexistence.


Respectful disagreement encouraged.