Saturday, July 13, 2024

How parallel play serves as saving grace for neuorodivergent youth


Share post:

Photo by Taylor Lawson

Story by Taylor Lawson

Emily Conn, 21, is living a life of ongoing questions and missed social cues because of herherattention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) and autism spectrum disorder diagnoses. She uses parallel play and music to soothe the ongoing war in her brain due to the opposing medial diagnoses.

Every morning, Conn asks herself, “Should I kill myself or make a cup of coffee?” So far, she has chosen coffee. She wipes the sleep from her eyes and greets her two cats and her roommate’s pet companions. While this daily contemplative — and some might say morbid — game of “Would You Rather” always ends the same way; Conn sees it as a simplified version of her problems.

“It’s more of a philosophy. I feel like if I can make it through my coffee, I can make it through the day,” she said.

Conn may sound like an average person, and in most aspects, she is. Though, she struggles maintaining a routine.

“It feels like I am supposed to play the lead in a play, but nobody gave me a script or costumes. I don’t know what I’m doing and it’s scary,” Conn said.

Born and raised in Nashville, Tenn., Conn spent most of her life dedicated to her studies at magnet schools and graduated from Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School. Currently, she is observing a gap year from Middle Tennessee State University. Music is one constant throughout her life, primarily influenced by her father.

“When I started living with my dad after Covid-19 started, we would have lessons twice a week,” she said. “We spent more purposeful time with each other.”

Her father played in a band the majority of Conn’s childhood. Every morning, her ears would ring from the sound of his electric guitar and simple songs he wrote for her.

“He once wrote a song for me about how I don’t like peppers or onions,” she said, laughing.

Conn’s mother on the other hand, particpated in a church choir. However, she still encouraged Conn’s growing interest in music, pushing her to try new instruments such as the violin.

While she finds music therapuetic, Conn utilizes multiple tools to get through her day-to-day life.

“It takes a lot of self-compassion. I saw a video about how hard it is to keep a routine with AD/HD and I decided to try to take it one day at a time. If I can do it today, I can manage to do it for my entire life, but it’ll be okay if I can’t,” Conn said. “Trying to structure my life around small rewards or games is really helpful.”

She sets reminders in her phone and uses several techniques to stablize a routine. One technique she uses is parallel play, a concept that is proving usual to others like her.

Christopher Quarto, an expert on neurodivergence conditions such as autism and AD/HD, described the practice as such: “Parallel play is something that is usually thought of as being associated with young children. They play next to one another, but they are relatively independent and do not interact with one another or attempt to impact/influence one another through play.”

Neurodivergence is described as differences in the brain. Many people with neurodivergence tend to have different strengths and challenges than those who do not, as well as learning disabilities and medical conditions.

While the practice of parallel play is mostly seen in children, some adults on the spectrum use it, too. They demonstrate parrallel play by spending time with others while completing other projects. Conn is one of many adults who cope with this.

“It helps me feel motivated. When I was growing up, my mom would ask if I could sit with her and she would do the same for me. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized why it was so helpful for me,” Conn said.

Conn was diagnosed a bit later than most. She went through testing for AD/HD in May 2021 and her testing for autism followed quickly after that in July 2022. The average age for these diagnoses is from ages 4 to 7-years-old.

“There’s not enough awareness about women with neurodivergence. Nobody knew what to look for because the signs are different,” Conn said. “When I was growing up, I just kind of suppressed everything. I thought it was normal.”

Living on the spectrum and having AD/HD has its conflicts.

“When taking into consideration an adult with autism spectrum disorder, the level of connectedness to others will vary. In most cases those connections will be minimal and weak. They don’t have a strong desire to connect with others nor do they feel like they have the ability or skill to be good at doing this,” Quarto said.

“On the other hand, someone with AD/HD could be the opposite – they might crave connection with others, but the way they go about doing it might turn people off in some cases. For example, they come on too strongly, or with too much energy. They are impulsive and may interrupt others during conversations.”

For Conn, tasks like doing dishes, putting away her laundry and taking the trash out zap most of her energy.

“It takes a lot of steps. It also sometimes falls into a sensory issue. At the end of the day, I’m not sure how to make myself do it,” Conn said.

Nevertheless, she takes all the necessary steps and finishes her tasks.

“It just feels different to do things with others than it does when I’m alone. If someone else is invested in ‘helping’ me, it feels like there is less weight,” she said. “It’s a conscious effort for me to make that connection and it feels like a fight to get up and start.”

Conn spends most of her “reset days,” as she describes them, collaborating with her roommate to clean the house. Though her struggles often feel invalid.

“The struggle feels like this: If I were to ask someone who doesn’t share my struggles to put their hand on a hot stove, they would obviously say no. They can physically put their hand there, but their body won’t let them because they know it will cause harm,” she said. “It feels like a much lower risk version of that.”

Conn is currently saving up to go back to school to finish her degree in Music Therapy. She wants to work with autistic youth.

“I want to help them learn creativity, collaboration and possibly motor skills and function,” Conn said. “I also have interest in emotional regulation.”

Expressive arts therapies have captivated her interest since 2020. One of Conn’s friends went to a psychiatric care facility and saw a music therapist. After hearing about that experience, her passion for music therapy struck her.

She has also been accepted into a music program called “On Stage Collective.” It is a 6-day program that will help Conn strengthen her abilities and work with Broadway performers like Elizabeth Teeter and Kevin Massey.

“I’m going to learn more about music and my voice. I want to learn from the best,” Conn said.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Destiny Mizell, email For more news, visit, or follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines or on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

Related articles

‘My mom, I love her ‘cause she loves me’: Bonnaroo with Ma

Feature Photo by Skyler Wendell Story by Hannah Carley Bonnaroo headliners the Red Hot Chili Peppers sold out The Farm...

Advocates make connections and spread awareness in Bonnaroo’s Non-Profit Village

Photos by Skyler Wendell, Sidelines Story by Shauna Reynolds A safe place to sleep. A listening ear. A chance to...

Feel the music: The hard of hearing and Deaf experience at Bonnaroo

Photo by Emma Burden Story by Emma Burden Steven Thorn walked out of the Chappell Roan pit with sweat down...

Chappell Roan’s fans (AKA the Pink Pony Club) dance into Bonnaroo

Photos by Skyler Wendell, Sidelines Story by Sarah Baczewski Festivalgoers arrived at Chappell Roan’s set exhausted from Saturday night's shenanigans...