Changing the way in which we play and interact with children with Autism is essential for their development. If we were to play with them in the same way we play with children who are Neurotypical, we would soon realise that they cannot learn that way!
When Jay got to two years old, I tried playing and interacting with him, in the same way I had with my older two children. Back then I only knew he had delays. I did not know he had Autism, so I just assumed he would enjoy similar games such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Peppa pig. Every time I tried to initiate play he would completely ignore me! It was literally like I was not there! For a while, I put it down to his delay and I continued to blame this, right until I realised he was Autistic!
Jay enjoys many games and still plays at Eight years old, in the exact same way as he played at Two. This is because of his Development Delay. However over the years I have seen a clear pattern in these play times, and the most obvious and continuous pattern, is his inability to allow others to enter his play, and control his play.
Jay started playing at Two, with games that involved the characters he loved from books and Television, such as Thomas and Peppa Pig. Yet he did not play in the “normal ” way expected of a child this age. Instead, he would place the toys in certain places, and move them around in a repetitive manner and I noticed he would do this the same way and in the same order each time. Then, one evening, I was sitting with Jay’s Dad chatting, when we realised Jay was moving around the living room in a strange manner. He was actually tapping each of his toys in turn across the whole room! He then continued to do this round and round about fifteen times in total. The next evening he repeated this and so on, until one day he just stopped doing it. So here in this little story is the first element with play in children with Autism- Repetitive play!!
To truly interact with the child we must first and foremost accept the way they play as the new “norm” Because to them it IS normal. I had to also accept this before I could truly enjoy playing games with Jay. Once I did I began to adapt the manner in which I joined his play. Instead of speaking and talking through it, I began to “shut up!” I allowed Jay to totally lead the play. As adults we are tempted to enter the child’s world by “talking” through the play! Yet if we just stopped chatting for a moment the child themselves may venture a comment or two! Why is it, we adults just have to be in control? Is there a deep down need in us to have complete and utter control over our children and their imaginations? I learned that the easiest way to be there for Jay during his play times , was to simply sit by him. Wait for him to ask, or to speak, or to simply place my hand upon the toy he wanted me to move.
What Jay was actually doing, was learning through his repetitive play! Without the repetition he simply could not learn. He could not process. He needed the pattern and the continuous stories to take in what he could from the play.
There was always a lack of Imagination in Jay’s play, and this will be seen in other children too with Classic Autism. Jay would speak whilst engaging in a game of small world play, however the story would be a story he had seen or read with me. I have never seen him conjure up a story of his own. This is because he does not have a developed Imagination. So, what does he do? Instead, he memorises stories in his mind and then recreates them with his toys. In some ways this is very clever, as it takes a perfect memory to do this which Jay has, and he uses it well! It is his memory that saves Jay as without it his delays are so significant I doubt his play would be much if not for his super advanced memory skills! So, there we have the second element with play in children with Autism- Memory.
Many children with Autism have early childhood “Schemas” The definition being ” a pattern of thought or behaviour, that organises categories of information and the relationships among them” Jay would use the Schema as a way of organising his world. He demonstrated many forms of Schema in his play at Three years old, and these Schemas were repeated over and over during his time in pre-school and at home. It has a lot to do with organising and following a pattern and Jay’s most common one was, “Trajectory” Schema. He would line up objects for hours, and crawl through crates which he had lined up. He would move along lines he had drawn and constantly drew lines on paper and on ICT monitors. Another kind of Schema he demonstrated was ” Enveloping ” Schema. He would seek out material to crawl under, hide under and cover himself with. He would climb fully in to boxes and would stay for ages just hidden. It was funny at the time, yet when I realised it was a pattern of behaviour I researched it and realised it was not only playing using Schema, he was repeating the Schema again and again. Not all children who play using Schemas go on to develop Autism but it is very common in children who do get a diagnosis, especially Classic Autism.
Jay using Schemas during his Early years play
So the Third element of learning through play in Classic Autism is Schema.
I soon learned many other ways to help Jay learn through HIS way of playing. Many children including Jay find it hard to share, and for children with delays and Autism, it can be so hard for them to get the concept of sharing! I decided to use a strategy I used at my work in Early Years, called the “First and Then ” Strategy! It worked for my two year olds at work so I began to use it for Jay and so far so good. When I say to Jay ” First this boy will play with the toy ‘ Then’ Jay can” he completely responds and will then wait for his turn. I use it every time we go in to public play areas or public places where sharing is required.
Lastly, I will share one more strategy. In order for Jay to make sense of the things that happen to him both at school and home and out and about, I use “Social Stories” and these are suggested by many Professionals we have seen. They really work! The fun part is coming up with the stories in the first place, and then incorporating the situation you are trying to help the child understand in to the story. I use Jay’s favourite teddies the two Spiders- Crawly and Spinney who are Jay’s best mates and mean the world to him! Spinney and Crawly usually get up to some mischief in the story which immediately will engage Jay and from then, I include the worry he has or the situation he has been in. It is fun, and it is a wonderful way to really connect with your child’s inner emotions and I love using them! Try it! They work with all children and if more parents used them children would understand the world better and how to relate to one another and plus they would have a good laugh and some fun and that is what should always be at the centre of every child’s world!!!
Next Time: Changing the way we Parent a child with Autism- improving quality of life and Behaviour