I was on the move, as I so often am—moving from one room to another in the process of some mundane accomplishment. I pass through the living room, but I stop before I make it through the door to go upstairs. It’s a moment.
Ben is unaware of me behind him. His eyes are transfixed to the television screen as his squirms and giggles. School House Rock is playing its vibrant colors and engaging music. It’s a Grammar Rock skit. Flashing across the screen are a series of statements, each ending in an exclamation point. Sometimes there is just the one word. Other times a few word pop on to the screen in sequence. Each time Ben’s finger touches the exclamation point and he says, “Point!” Over and over again he identifies the exclamation points with his finger and his words.
This moment in time is precious. It a confluence of skills that would seem ordinary or even under-par for a typically developing seven year old, but for Ben it’s further evidence that his developmental trajectory has shot up dramatically over the last year. Both pointing and speaking were skills that were difficult for him to develop. The ability to attach words to applicable situations in a manner that conveys meaning is a hard-won skill. Pointing required a lot of hand-over-hand instruction. Now, he was doing both independently in a situation that expressed not only his understanding, but his excitement.
“Great job, Ben!” He looks at me, squeals, and wrings his hands in excitement; but my praise is lost in the thrill of another screen full of “points” to identify. He’s not doing it for me. He’s doing it because he enjoys his little game. As I move on to my mundane task, I cannot help but revel in the glow of accomplishment. The accomplishment I see isn’t merely the confluence of skills—though I certainly recognize the significance of that when it comes to developing additional skills and climbing his way through our educational system. The accomplishment I see is his application of the things we’re teaching him to his own purposes. He’s generalizing not just to the tasks we attempt to assign to him, but to games he invents for himself.
That’s an accomplishment all children should get to enjoy. Yet, with our children demonstrating so many delays, with so many different ways we can and “should” help them, often free time for the child to just play without any expectations seems so fleeting. As parents of children with autism we need to remember that kids learn a lot simply from playing. Some people tell us that this statement doesn’t hold true for children with autism. I think they’re wrong. Autistic children may not learn the same things their neurotypical peers learn from play, but they do learn and they do experience joy in the games they develop for themselves. Let them! They need that time just as much as they need skill-development time. Without that “down time” there is so much they miss.