Exploring Cosplay Practice Experiences in Autistic Children and Young People

  • Alice Leyman

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Imposed normative societal groupings, overwhelming external environmental factors, and assumptions of neurological diversity, including deep-seated conceptual notions of (neurotypical) social constructions and engagement, are acting to exclude autistic children and young people; subsequently restricting their ability to be active participants in general society. This study identifies, however, that such exclusionary experiences are being countered and combated through a particular play activity that is enabling the creation of meaningful and valuable spaces to find friendship, self-assurance, and acceptance, often in lieu of material spaces.
Drawing on in-depth fieldwork carried out in the UK between 2020 and 2023, this PhD thesis explores the narratives of autistic children and young people and presents particular aspects of these as inherent to their subsequent motivation a particular play practice called cosplay, a form of imaginative play that can involve dressing up as characters from movies, TV shows, books, comics, video games, anime, manga, and original stories.
Simultaneously, this study identifies how flexibility, child-interest led methods, and ‘playful’ practice within research can aid and facilitate engagement with autistic children and young people, expanding upon understandings of agency and interaction in children’s geographies, whilst encouraging continual and further research incorporating neurodiverse young people and their perspectives. Analysis of information collected from ‘cosplay infused’ interviews and encounters identify consistent, and characteristically exclusionary, negative experiences as antecedent to their cosplay practice, and detail how participants found ways of coping, and consequently, much more.
Encompassing the direct perspectives of autistic youth, this study examines, in particular, the multiple space transference potential of the practice. From the private sphere of a cosplayer’s bedroom and the physical sensory experience of dress up and role play, to posting online and community forum interaction, to the public, communal arena of the comic convention. Intertwining digital and online engagement with physical interaction, autistic cosplayers accounts not only detail experiences of material and virtual space use for play from their own homes, but also reveal, in response to exclusion from society and to combat social anxiety, the creation of alternative spaces that appear beyond or between the everyday. These often ‘liminal’ spaces – spaces of transition, created by change, on the edge of other spaces, or as thresholds to other space - facilitate a deeper, more immersive experience, which permits freedom of expression, a ‘rehearsal’ place for self-affirmation and, most importantly, a safe space to belong. Mechanisms for creating such spaces are identified and explored further to achieve a deeper understanding, which may prove useful for wider concerns, to better support crucial educational and early career situations, and other related social experiences that are currently too overwhelming, and therefore unacceptably inaccessible, for neurodiverse individuals.
Date of Award20 May 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorCaroline Day (Supervisor), Tara Woodyer (Supervisor) & Anita Franklin (Supervisor)

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