The Importance of Balancing Work and Play for Autism and Disabilities

The Importance of Balancing Work and Play for Autism and Disabilities

Is ‘all play and no work’ worse than ‘all work and no play’?

The age old saying ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ implies that too much work leads to a boring, sad and uninspired life. But what happens when the opposite scenario occurs?

While visiting many of my adult clients with autism and disabilities, I sometimes encounter a belief among staff teams, tutors and caregivers that individuals with autism and learning disabilities require lots of chill time and leisurely activity and that this will make them happy. There is a notion that challenging tasks, such as chores, work, conquering fears, exercising and learning new skills, may be too overwhelming for them. The belief being that the focus instead should be on leisure activities, tasks they excel in, lots of downtime and activities the individual chooses to do.

However, is this belief overlooking the fact that it is overcoming challenging tasks that often ignites our passion and curiosity and ultimately brings us joy? Additionally, completing daily chores, tackling new challenges and conquering the obstacles of the day, could make relaxing leisure time sweeter and more gratifying. Especially as it offers a moment to unwind before the next hurdle.

Looking at this through a behavioural lens, we can contemplate whether challenges, work, chores and varied activities offer experiences that can be considered behavioural cusps. These are experiences that can lead the client to discover new interests, new reinforcers and new options to choose from. It can also introduce them to contact with new environments, people and experiences, enabling them to build even more skills. This, in turn, can reduce inflexibility, limited interests and rigidities.

Another phenomenon to consider is that mentally and physically taxing activities act as an establishing operation (EO) that increases the value of leisurely and easier tasks. In other words, the challenge posed by difficult tasks can establish that simpler tasks are more reinforcing by comparison. On the other hand, with frequent access to leisure activities, preferred pastimes and effortless tasks, we easily become satiated. This acts as an Abolishing operation (AO) which reduces the reinforcing value of these activities over time.

Thinking about this concept, highlights the fact that engaging in work, challenges and difficulty not only allows us to appreciate leisurely, playful and easier times, but it also expands our horizons. Being involved in diverse activities enables us to discover more ways to be playful and learn about ourselves and the world around us, leading to informed decision making and a broader range of choices being available to us. If we were to spend our entire day playing and limiting ourselves to familiar, effortless activities from a limited range of options, we would quickly find ourselves bored, frustrated and lacking a sense of vitality and purpose in life.

It is, therefore, not surprising to observe that some of my adult clients, who are seemingly offered an easy time with plenty of leisure activities and freedom to engage in their preferred pursuits, with minimal exposure to new and challenging tasks, often appear unhappy, frustrated, aggressive, mischievous or simply bored. I noticed that individuals in this situation were tending to disengage from activities that they enjoy, demonstrating passive involvement and showing signs of drifting away, such as gazing elsewhere or zoning out. They also increased repetitive and obsessive compulsive type behaviours and chains of behaviour.

Caregivers are often surprised to see that, during preferred activities that they assumed the individual would enjoy, the client exhibits signs of unhappiness such as crying, self-injury and aggression, despite appearing to be engaged in activities of their own choice or preference.

Our clients with autism and learning disabilities oftentimes have associated skill deficits which could also play into getting stuck in this trap such as:

  • Relational Framing Skills – The person not being able to self-motivate to try new and difficult things due to not having the necessary didactic relational framing skills to put themselves in the future to know that, while something is hard now it will feel great afterwards. Similar to how one may say, “I don’t want to go to the gym now, but if I go I’ll feel better after” or “I really don’t want to tidy and clean up the kitchen, but it will be so much easier for me to bake my favourite cake once it’s done”. Not being able to imagine yourself and how you will feel in the future, may limit what you choose to push yourself to do in the present and leave you stuck in doing the same things over and over.
  • Manding/Requesting Deficits – A lack of spontaneous manding or requesting may lead to the person seemingly asking for things, but in reality, they are only selecting what they typically choose at that time or place, or what is in front of them. This can cause the person to appear as if they are doing something they have chosen, but in reality, they may not be enjoying it or only enjoy it to a limited extent and may not know how to choose something else.
  • Chaining – Leading to a person chaining certain activities and events together and completing them in a specific order. It may seem like they are choosing to do these activities, but in reality, they are following a chain of actions they believe they “should” do to complete the task. This results in negative reinforcement and feeling trapped in an endless “must-do” list rather than receiving positive reinforcement.
  • Obsessive And Compulsive Type Behaviours – Such as rituals and habits, which are serving the function of providing negative reinforcement to individuals, rather than positive reinforcement through enjoyable activities. For example, a client who becomes tense upon seeing a piece of paper or a book with a slight tear may feel the need to rip it fully and throw it away before they can relax and move on. However, this activity becomes a seemingly chosen sensory activity that occupies most of their day, despite the fact that they are not enjoying it.
  • Intense Fear Of The New And Unknown – A natural human instinct, which can be intensified in people with disabilities due to skill deficits which make it more difficult to problem solve, generalise skills or get needs and wants understood in new and different places. It’s understandable that new situations would be very worrying if you don’t have a large bank of skills to rely on to problem solve varied situations and get out if you need to. Much easier to stay where its safe and where you know what to expect!

How can we differentiate between someone being stuck doing things they don’t want to do vs actually wanting to do those things?

When supporting someone, we can ask ourselves these questions –

  • Is the person showing signs of happiness, engagement, interest and curiosity in doing the things that are filling their day?
  • Are the things that are filling their day bringing about vitality in the person’s life?

If not, are we seeing instead –

  • Boredom
  • Frustration
  • Repetitive Behaviours
  • Tenseness Followed By Brief Relief
  • Challenging Behaviour

While appearing to do the things they have chosen/like/find easy?

If so, it is our duty to recognise that the individual may require additional support, an assessment of their situation, and advocacy if they are unable to do so themselves. We must acknowledge that they may require support to break free from the activities and routines they appear to have chosen. Although they may not initially appreciate challenges or difficulties, they will ultimately benefit from being active, engaged and overcoming obstacles with our support and encouragement.

With lots of small steps, support on toleration and support to address the underlying skill deficits, we can support clients to be able to confidently try verified, new and difficult experiences and take on new challenges. In this way we can support others to live a varied life.

Maybe it’s best not to think of things in the dichotomy ‘all work and no play’ or ‘all play and no work’, maybe its ‘some work and some play makes Jack live a full, varied, rich life?’.

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