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What Does “Play” Look Like?

  • Posted on May 13, 2011 at 8:33 AM

Back when Willy was diagnosed with autism, we were told about all the things he would “never” do.  Anyone who has read this blog for a while probably realizes that all these things the doctor said Willy would never do are things he has now done, with the exception of living independently (he’s only twelve, after all).  But his younger brothers continue to struggle with many of these things, like speaking to communicate and attending school in a traditional classroom.

And then there’s “play.”  I can’t help but think that the whole issue regarding autism and play has nothing to do with “play,” or even “imaginative play.”  Instead, it has everything to do with “acceptable” play.

This makes me think back to recess.  There were teachers and schools that let us, when I was a child, play however we wanted, so long as we weren’t hurting each other or going off the established play area.  Even the “not hurting each other” was negotiable when it came to verbal taunts and the like.  Outside, there were balls for those who liked to play sports during recess, hoola hoops (which I never saw as a “sport”), sidewalk chalks, grassy knolls, climbing equipment, tracks for running, as well as sand boxes and places to sit quietly.  Inside, there were games and dolls and cars, along with lots of paper to draw on, clay and Play-Doh, whole sets of miscellaneous characters from Little People to sports figurines, and other toy sets.  The play was usually loud, usually wild, and kind of hard to keep track of, considering some students would jump around between a dozen different activities in the 20-30 minutes of recess.

There were other teachers and schools that ascribed to some psychological or academic notion of “appropriate” play.  They insisted on structure and order and tried to carry over the environment of the classroom into our play.  It wasn’t a break—a recess—from the pressures of our academics, but instead these play periods accentuated those pressures.  Outside, there were balls to play sports.  You were expected to play kick ball or basketball.  You were expected to work on your physical education skills, like sportsmanship, kicking, dribbling, and scoring.  Inside, there were tea sets, dolls, Legos, and paper for coloring.  There were tables and/or desks, and no room to get away from them.  While inside, the paramount was being quiet and still—the same as during class.  Participation was mandatory, but it wasn’t encouraged or facilitated—it was simply expected.

I can’t help but think that those who look at autistic children and don’t see “play” honestly think the latter is a realistic expectation.  Don’t get me wrong:  Play can be structured, orderly and quiet.  But it doesn’t have to be.  It doesn’t have to involve sitting around a table following someone else’s rules.  I would contend, especially in regard to “imaginative play,” that rigidity with rules and structure is counterproductive.

Alex and Ben have no interest in sitting down with a tea set or a kitchen set and playing house.  Perhaps, in that psychological or academic sense, this is a legitimate failure.  But I strongly object to the notion that their lack of interest (or their lack of ability) in this regard has anything to do with whether or not they engage in imaginative or pretend play.  Alex and Ben are both interested and able in pretending and using their imagination; they are not interested (or, maybe, not able) to share their pretend or imaginative games.  They aren’t mimicking us; which, to be honest, would not involve tea parties anyway.  They are playing the way they want to, whether that’s retelling stories they love or coming up with their own intricate little scenarios.  It’s still play.

Last week, I saw Ben camped out in the front window with a toy train, piles of dried beans, and an egg beater.  He was playing:  He held the egg beater over the train and tried to drive the train in a straight line without hitting the piles of beans (which were directly on the “track”).  I have no idea what was going through his head, but it was definitely play.  There was no way for me to join in—when I tried, he flashed me one of those looks that said “you’re invading my territory, Mom, go away”—but it was still play.  It was still imaginative.  It was still pretend.  But it wasn’t appropriate or acceptable or whatever.

The heart of imagination isn’t what’s acceptable, appropriate, familiar or recognizable.  It’s the unknown, the new, the changed, the wondrous.  So, yeah, my boys’ play can be kind of rigid.  But their rigidity serves their play.  The idea of “appropriate play” is equally rigid, but only seems to serve adults’ comfort zones—not a child’s imagination.


  • Posted on March 16, 2010 at 12:51 PM

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.