The Hidden Benefits

An important part of many Autistic people’s lives is therapy, particularly for our kids and teens. And while this is necessary and can add immense value, I want to highlight the benefits of unleashing the power of unstructured play without pre-defined rules and agendas.

A recent poll by the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne investigated play in Australia and produced a report titled, Australian Families: How We Play. The report identified that: “Play is critical to a child’s learning and development. Play is the strongest learning mode throughout early childhood, enhances learning at all ages, and is a powerful force in family and social cohesion. It supports children’s physical, cognitive and social development, teaching them to develop and use language effectively, and solve problems collaboratively and independently. Play satisfies a basic human need to express imagination, curiosity and creativity.”

Interestingly, the poll delved into free play, revealing more than half of parents (56%) said their child needed to spend more time in free and unstructured play.

What does this look like?

The A List Social Hubs were created after 200 Autistic teenagers told us they simply want “a place to hang out”. So, the Social Hubs are just that, a physical space that enables our kids and teens to self-direct activities, be spontaneous and form organic connections with other like-minded individuals.

What appears on the outside to be ‘unstructured’ is quite the opposite. We are seeing the very real benefits of unstructured play, evident in the friendships that are forming, the self-discovery taking place and the growth in confidence and self-esteem of our Social Hub members.  People are achieving goals, naturally and rapidly in ways that therapy does not allow for, by connecting with other neurodivergent youth.

Reducing Stress and Anxiety

With a dedicated space to ‘just be’, our A Listers are removing the masks and replacing these behaviours with spontaneity and carefree conversation. The sensory overload, stress and exhaustion that comes from trying to fit in elsewhere is being exchanged for fun and relaxation, as they be their authentic self, in an environment free of expectations.

Most of all, unstructured play reduces the anxiety some Autistic people associate with structured activities, as they often come with specific agendas attached. Unstructured time is free from judgement and external expectations, allowing a sense of relief and freedom – even if only for a couple of hours each week.

At the Social Hubs, we see batteries re-charged as our A Listers engage – or not – in pursuits they personally enjoy, be it creative, sports, music or just sitting in silence.

Confidence and self-esteem

We know Autistic individuals often exhibit strengths in particular areas and unstructured time allows them to focus on these strengths and abilities. This leads to moments of accomplishment and success, increasing feelings of self-competence.

In addition to developing innate strengths and abilities, unstructured play allows Autistic youth to explore their own personal interests and hobbies, helping to reinforce a sense of identity. The deep engagement that we witness when an Autistic child or teenager is absorbed in something they truly enjoy, is beneficial for concentration and sustained focus.

And importantly, unstructured play can provide a safe space for Autistic individuals to share honest thoughts, feelings and perspectives in a way that might not be achievable in other settings, that rely heavily on neuro-typical communication methods.

Social interactions

Purposely forgoing structured activity enables like-minded social connections to form. Our A Listers socialise on their own terms with people they are comfortable with and who enjoy shared hobbies and interests.  Many parents who have kids and teens attending have initial concerns about “parallel play” or what seems like a lack of engagement.  When we allow them to be, we find they will naturally connect in a very short space of time.  When we can let go of what “we know a social interaction to look like” we find that friendships can form in real and unique way.

There is an authenticity in relationships that comes when barriers to connection are removed.

But unstructured doesn’t mean unproductive.

In fact, a by-product of the Social Hubs is that our A Listers are rapidly developing social skills by having the freedom to converse with others in a non-pressured environment. Activities and shared interests are becoming conversation starters and we are seeing self-advocacy taking place as confidence grows and our A Listers feel empowered to express their needs.

Positive insights driving growth

Our Social Hubs are increasingly providing insights that support the power of unstructured play in enriching the lives of Autistic kids and teens. And the benefits are multi-faceted: a reduction in stress and anxiety has a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing; confidence and self-esteem are boosted as a greater sense of identity is formed; and friendships and social connections are built on authenticity and shared interests.

They are developing confidence, inviting people to social activities outside the hub, learning aspects of self-advocacy, being able to say what they like and don’t like, express their wants, dreams and ask for them, often in collaboration with other teens in the hub.

I’ll leave you with some comments by our A Listers and the parents and carers who witness the growth of their children each week.

What our A Listers are saying:

“Normally Mum has to make me go inside whenever we go anywhere. I need her to walk me all the way to the front door. I make her wait in the car when I come here. I just run in.” – Ruby, 13

“I had to leave mainstream school, you know because of the bullying. This place is special. I just feel like I am accepted and I can be myself.” – Emily, 18

“My top 3 things about the Social Hubs? The people are fun. It’s not clinical. I can just be.” – AJ, 16

What our parents are saying:

“My kid doesn’t have a particular thing they are into, so we have really struggled to find a social group or activity.  That’s what we love about these hubs, there is no thing they are supposed to be doing or into.  They are just making friends.” 

“He just had the worst day at school and he wouldn’t miss coming here.  I can’t get him to go anywhere, but he would never miss his Thursdays at the Social Hub.”

“Our Psychologist said they cannot believe the difference in her since attending these hubs, she is not the same kid, she is so much more confident, she is happy.”

For more information or to join our Social Hubs Click Here.


Review this resource