People on the spectrum, including myself, can be very stubborn people when it comes to learning new things and meeting new people. Play is how you get your child open up to new ideas and people. For kids on the spectrum the big gesture of someone wanting to play with us often makes it easier for us to learn from you. Why? Because your facial expressions are bigger and your voice is louder, which allow us to know read your face for what you are feeling. Where as in a calmer setting, your expressions are more subtle and we do not always pick up on that. I have found reviewing positive and negative play experiences with a child it often gives them a better understanding of others and their own behavior as well. This is the brilliance of play that it is this big visual representation of human interactions. How does the need to communicate and connect translate out of the playful experience into the more serious things like making friends and being in school?
“Captain Hook: Fly! Fly! Fly! You coward!
Peter Pan: Coward! Me?
Captain Hook: Ha-ha-ha! You wouldn't dare fight old Hook man-to-man. You'd fly away like a cowardly sparrow!
Peter Pan: Nobody calls Pan a coward and lives! I'll fight you man-to-man, with one hand behind my back.
Captain Hook: You mean you won't fly?
Wendy: No, don't, Peter! It's a trick!
Peter Pan: I give my word, Hook.
Captain Hook: Good, then let's have at it” (Peter Pan 1954)!
As parents with children on the spectrum, it may sometimes seem like you cannot just tell your child to do something without there being some king of physical reward (ex. A new toy). Sure most kids will argue or throw fit when you ask them to do anything, but how often do they have you fight them physically on the kitchen or super market floor? This can be a breakdown in communication or perhaps you forget to bring the reward (ex. Candy) for walking through the market safety. Why does asking a question like this make parents feel like Captain Hook fighting Peter Pan? Here is where the secret comes in that most of children who are throwing a fit are still able keep most emotions internally. However, with children on the spectrum this internal filter often does not existence, thus this is why some of us fly into a blind rage and attack you. There is no filter for our emotions so it seems like they are happening all at once and then we lose our shit. When this happens it’s like Elvis has just left the building and only our impulses remain! Play is the reward without boundaries and it is how you will get your child to positively connect with other people. So when your ASD child is on the verge of a meltdown smile like Hook and say “Good, then let’s have at it” (Peter Pan 1954).
What I am saying here is show your kid that you are right there with them. That you understand that they struggling to tell you something important or feeling rushed to answer a question. This is why your children is so often reciting word for word scenes from their favorite TV program or a memory from their past. It is because they are trying tell you something about how they feel by giving a visual example of it. Remember that the Autism language is a very visual one. So when your child brings up something that happen five years ago that seemly has nothing to do with the current situation, “think twice, it’s all right” (Bob Dylan). What I want you to observe is the emotions of the scene that they are describing. Are they or the character they are talking about: happy or mad or confused? What does this feel like? From personal experience it makes you feel like nobody is listening to me or even sees me truly.
What I am trying say here is that people on spectrum are aware that they have this disconnect between themselves and others, but we don’t know to fix this connection. Play is how children universally experiment with their emotions and communication skills and it is the bridge we need to walk across to meet everyone else. To teach your child how to make friends or take part in school you need to teach them how their actions are a form of a universal language. I am talking about the Golden Rule, “do onto others as you would have done onto you.” The way that you play often defines who you are to the other kids. This is why I am stressing to you the parents to play with your kids as often as you can and remember to tap into your inner child. I promise you will have moments like the following: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJZbdaVLewI If ASD child can meet the real you trust me you will get him hooked on trying figure out other people too.
Play is what will make us want to express ourselves better because it allows us to let our social anxiety guard down and be our selves. When we are trying have serious conversation the pressure of eye contact and social cues often puts us on the edge. It is like when you are trying remember everything for test that you didn’t start studying until the night before the exam. Play allows us to learn how take our time while processing our feelings and actions. For example: when you have to take turns playing with a toy with another person and each of you get it for 10 minutes each. The big thing is that it can teach us how to have a two person conversation through the act of sharing. That an interaction between two people does not have end in a meltdown, but instead be a fun experience. How does this work with other children and your child playing together? Playing is the first transferable skill our children can learn, which means that they take the concept of play from home and use it on the playground.
No matter where your child is on spectrum and their ability to speak, I believe play is the road to: self-discovery, self-awareness, self-advocacy, and self-reliance. Self-discovery includes asking the question am I aggressive player or am I a laid back player? Self-awareness includes asking the question should I hang out with people who seem to have same playing style as me? Self-advocacy includes asking another person, do you want to play? This will lead to them discovering shared interests and forming the bonds of friendship. During these experiences play helps us let our social anxiety guard down and be our selves so that we can get the validation that other people like us. I have seen all my students become excited to feel included in a group activity, even when they did not understand the game. Just to be at an event and being the chance to laugh with his or her classmates is enough for some kids. This leads to the second transferable skill from play, which is to recognize the feeling of being included in a group. My final thoughts for this blog is to challenge all of you my readers to look at all your child’s interactions as a victory no matter if someone got hit or not. I want you to pick three things every day that your child did that you loved and tell them what you wrote down. Make sure when you are saying good night to them, that you play a little game or read a good story to make sure the day ends on a good note. Like the old saying goes “never go to bed angry.” It is often noted that people on the spectrum love constancy because it lowers our social anxiety. So let play be the center of what your child does ever day. So that when things get out of control, they know all I have to do to get back to center of being is to play.
Coming up soon is Parenthood: Untold Neverland part 5, the Power of Inclusion