Friday, July 31, 2009

learning to play

Many autistics can occupy themselves for long periods of time. Way before we even anticipated a diagnosis for Martin, we noticed his amazing capacity to amuse himself. As a baby - after he could sit up but before he could crawl - we could give him a piece of paper and he'd play with it for half an hour. We had to start worrying, however, once he started with his obsession for "A Charlie Brown Christmas" sometime between turning two and three. Basically, all of Martin's playing served as formats for re-enacting Charlie Brown. He acted out the parts with his stuffed animals and little figurines. He looked for Christmas cards in every mailbox, just like Charlie Brown. He recited the lines over and over again. We soon realized that Martin had no idea how to play using his own imagination. He could only act out scripts.

I know, I know, isn't all childhood play the acting out of the scripts of life to some degree? When we play with dolls we acts like parents, right? When we establish fanciful games with our friends it's just riffing on the world. I kept telling myself that. It took a long time for me to realize that Martin wouldn't be able to create fancilful games with friends or pretend to be parents with kids at school if he could only say lines from Charlie Brown. After his diagnosis, we read that constant repetition of scripts serves as a comfort to autistic kids. When a situation is new, they can bust out the tried and true lines from movies and books. They struggle to adapt to the new situation, which means they can hardly handle a new potential friend, a new place to visit, etc.

We worked with Martin to push at the boundaries of the scripts. For awhile, he was all about "The Three Little Pigs," a particualr version he had heard on a CD. When he acted out the script - using penguins since he didn't have three stuffed pigs - we would ask him questions after he finished his own story. Do the pigs go to school? What do they like to play? Are they hungry?

After weeks of this, I finally heard Martin in the midst of what might be called imaginative play. He was holding a birthday party for the three little pigs/penguins. There was singing and a cake and candles. And even though he was borrowing from another life script, his mind chose a new option and not the old story. This was just a few months ago, nearly two years after Martin's diagnosis. Nevertheless, it was a great day.

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