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Accepting the Child who doesn't Engage during Play

Some of the biggest issues that children with aspergers and other forms of autism tend to face are social ones and in the early years these tend to be most obvious during play.

Children with aspergers often have no idea how to join in games or how to play co-operatively. While other children will play with toy boats in water, children on the spectrum may simply sprinkle water on their hands and enjoy the feeling.

Parent concerns are often pushed aside with the phrase, "it's a sensory issue".

Then there's parallel play, where the child will sit with a group of other children and play similar games but not make eye contact and not engage in discussions or interplay.

Again, parents are often told to expect the worst. Their child won't socialise, won't interact and isn't friendly.

Finally, there's lone-play, where a child will go into a corner and will line up cars, organise toy kitchen utensils or simply cuddle up to some soft toys.

In this case, parents are often told that their child lacks the imagination to play.

None of these things are true.

A Different Perspective
It's funny but before being placed on the spectrum, I never really thought about how things must have appeared to others. I have good memories of my play years and from my perspective, there was nothing wrong. It's only now that I think about it as a parent that I realize how my behavior must have concerned my parents and my teachers.

Firstly, there's the sensory issues. There's just no getting around the fact that we have particular sensory likes and dislikes. The feeling of water dripping between my fingers has always been one of my likes.

Put me near a bowl of water and sooner or later, I'm bound to put my fingers in it - even as an adult. Those sensory callings are very strong.

It would however be a mistake to presume that I wasn't engaged in some form of play - and usually, that play was "inside my head". My fingers would be an octopus, a jellyfish or some other sea creature. I didn't need to play with a boat for that. I could play and indulge my sensory needs at the same time.

Then there's parallel play. This is where the communication issues that children on the spectrum have really become apparent. Again, it would be a mistake to presume that no imaginative play was occuring. In fact, most of my play was imagination - arguably much more so than my peers.

The problem was that I simply never communicated my play to my peers but believe me; at times, I tried. I guess that my imagination was always far more complex than my ability to explain. Other children would not follow my rules, particularly my unspoken ones. They would change my games, take over and worst of all, they would make a grab for the "best" toys. I quickly learned that the best play for me didn't necessarily require the involvement of other children - of course, that lesson didn't come without a few meltdowns along the way.

There was also the issue of eye contact. At the time, I didn't know what it was. I just didn't like looking at those other children and I didn't like them looking at me. Now however, I can see the issue for what it truly was.

Parallel play may not seem ideal but it does signify that your child is playing and being imaginative. It also shows that your child likes being around other children. Try not to dwell on the negatives - there are a lot of positives here.

The final form of play, lone-play is less healthy though in the absence of other children, it's perfectly acceptable.

Like many parents, my parents weren't terribly interested in playing "toys" with me. Their interest tended to stop at board and sporting games. My sister was into "girl things" and had a cliche of friends. Growing up, most of my home play time was by myself.

I would often spend my time setting things up but not actually "playing" with them. I'd line my cars up and then sit and look at them for hours. The same thing happened when I was older with my Star Wars figures and vehicles.

It would be a huge mistake however for my parents to have deemed my play unimaginative.

All of my matchbox cars had names.
All of them had occupations and background-stories.

They would line up in "meetings" and those meetings always had a purpose. Sometimes it would be a trial, sometimes a car would attempt a leadership coup and sometimes the cars would be forced to pick sides. Obviously I didn't have the words to suggest these things but the concepts were certainly there in my imaginative play. Perhaps I got the ideas from things which were happening at school - I'm not sure.

All of my cars had voices and they all had conversations.

I'd look at my cars arrranged in neat rows and their voices would "talk in my head". Occasionally I'd move the cars into a different pattern, when they needed to vote but mostly the cars remained in formation. Almost all of the play was in my head.

I've already mentioned that the same thing happened with my Star Wars figures but you might be surprised to learn that it also happened with my stuffed animals, my blankets and my bed. Every night, prior to sleeping, an adventure would take place. I'm sure that if I wrote those adventures down, they'd make popular children's stories. Every night was different and sometimes my bedroom floor would be space, sometimes it would be sea and sometimes it would be land.

Wrapping Up
I realize that I haven't presented any magic therapy to get your children to socialise more or play "better". I haven't even dismissed their behavour as "wrong".

It isn't wrong.

Once again, I'm advocating acceptance. Your child will play when they are ready and when they want to. The best you can do is provide them with optional, not enforced, opportunities.

Most of all, as parents, we should not be so quick to judge. Often there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.


father of four said…
Gavin, I loved this description of how you played with cars. My two boys always play in a similar way with their collection of cars (all with names and character) - as I think, did I. Cheers, father of four
GB's Mom said…
My daughter is ASD and well aware she doesn't have NT friends and she wants so badly to be included. If she was happy with playing"in her head", it would be fine with me. But she is not. When she hurts, I hurt.
I think there may be differences in the ways that Autistic boys and girls feel about solitary and parallel play. I very strongly believe that girls are more hard-wired than boys for social interaction and cooperation, and we long for it in a way that boys may not. I realize that this is a huge generalization, but it seems to hold true for a lot of us.

As a child, I felt much as GB Mom's daughter feels. I could entertain myself just fine, but it always felt like treading water: I was always waiting to be rescued and couldn't figure out how to swim. I was fortunate in being very athletic as a child, so I played sports with boys a lot, for whom the interactions were simpler. But as I got older, I wanted the company of other girls, and as the years went on, it felt like our paths were diverging rather than meeting. It was the source of a lot of depression and confusion. Girls have their own brand of exclusionary and cruel behavior, and the more you deal with it, the less you want to. It took me a long time to really forge deep and lasting friendships with other women.

At this point in my life, I enjoy my solitude, but I think that's only because I've built a solid base of family and friendship as an adult.
Johanna said…
Gavin, this was a wonderful post. My son is one of those aspies who craves social contact, but it is difficult for obvious reasons.
At the moment a lot of his imaginative play is "motuionless" ie the toys are not moved, sometimes not even used, but there is constant dialogue going on. I know this, because a lot of the time he is speaking aloud. When I asked him what he was on about, I was told not to butt into other people's business! ;) Had a good internal laugh then. I believe that my son has loads of imagination and imaginative play, even if it is not the same tyoe as other children's. Thank-you so much again writing this blog!
Anonymous said…
I expect your memories of childhood play are reassuring to parents. Looks like your parents were accepting of you as a child.

"Parent concerns are often pushed aside with the phrase, "it's a sensory issue".

How true. What is a parent supposed to do about a "sensory issue"? (I give plenty of opinion on this on my blog.) Red flag is the person is 'selling' something to change the 'sensory issue' instead of learn to live with it.

"The best you can do is provide them with optional, not enforced, opportunities." Excellent advice! In a way, what therapists try to do (should), and give parents ideas for doing the same. Barbara
Anonymous said…
Thank you for posting this description of how this all looked from your childhood. I have an autistic granddaughter who does not play with other children other than her sister. That play is very energetic and physical. But much of her time is spent playing on her own or beside others. I know her mind is very busy because she sometimes "talks" to herself, making little noises. This often goes on during car rides as well. And she is happy. Of course there are meltdowns, but for the most part she is a very happy little girl. It is reassuring to hear your point of view.

It may be easier for her than for higher functioning children who have the desire for but not the ease of social interactions.
Anonymous said…
I love this post. I also remember a lot of childhood imaginative play that took place mostly inside my head — thanks for the reminder. I am so tired of therapists telling me my son's play is "wrong" and that we need to intervene to modify it. If behavior interferes with activities of daily living, is self-injurious, or causes harm to others, then I'm ready and willing to intervene. But if my son is doing something that makes him happy, which happens to look a little different than what other kids are doing, then I'm going to let him do it. He has a whole lifetime ahead of him to be bullied and pressured into choosing other activities; he doesn't need to start that now.
Stephanie said…
It's funny, but most of my "play" still goes on in my head. As a writer, I write some it down. I fully develop and express some of my stories to share with others--and as much as that is a form of play, it's also work.

Some stories I'd just rather keep to myself.

I know my children tell themselves stories, and I know they try to share some of them with us.

It's not so different. And it's definitely imaginative play!
andreawilliams said…
Great honest post!! LOVE it!!
C... said…
I like your perspective. Different is not wrong. We all don't have to play the same to enjoy ourselves. My son is an Aspie and he plays best with just one friend at a time, with me or alone.
Virginia Revoir said…
Hi! It's nice to "meet" you. I have an aspergers son and love to find sites like this where someone can help give me some insight. :)

My name is Erica and I'm the blog owner of Aspergian Tales, which is a blog about families that have an Aspie or stories from an Aspie. We want to share real world experiences that we face with our Aspies.

I was wondering if you'd like to be interviewed for our blog and we'll link back to your blog in the interview post. If you are interested, please let me know!!!
belljennifer71 said…
My son has always been a pilot "in his head" and blown things up. I have a video of him, at 16 months, watching the digitally recreated WWii Dog Fights on television. He would lean into the turns. And when they would interview someone rather than showing the planes, he would cry.

I now understand that this is part of Asperger's, but I have felt tremendous guilt that I never saw his independent, imaginative play as a red flag. (Of course, I never saw his talking at 8 months a red flag, either... just thought I was blessed to have the "smart one.")

Reading your stories, I am reassured. I am blessed beyond measure that you have penned your memories and thoughts. Thank you!

One night when he was three, I kissed him as I tucked him in. He put his fingers on the place I had kissed, and made a noise. I asked him what he was doing. He said, "I blowed it up!" There is SO much going on in his imagination, and when he's got words for it all, he'll share.
Jennifer G said…
I like this post. I especially enjoyed your explanation of the silent play with your cars. I wish I could hear the dialoge as I would like to play too. =)
Your post is a perfect example of "looks can be deceiving". Althoug you appear to be doing nothing, there is a whole other world working just fine in your mind. Thanks for the incite.
Anonymous said…
i stumble on your blog, my daughter is going through evaluation and they are fairly certain she has aspergers. reading this post relived some of my concerns so thank you so much for blogging about it. :))
Longpod said…
Hello. Ive just found your blog. . My son is 9 and has Aspergers and ADHD. I guess I just wanted to say what a great post this is. Thank you for sharing it.
Anonymous said…
Hi, very interesting post, I feel though you are trying to explain why you think the imagination part of the triad of impairments is wrong but this often confused me when first learning about autism it doesn't mean the person lacks imagination and as you say you had more going on as my son does to I believe, but what I've learnt is its the part of imagination where a person can imagine how another feels or views the world not about imaginative play at all.
Its commonly misunderstood and other people will use that as a reason to say someone isn't autistic, oh look hes making up a story he cant be autistic he has an imagination - doh totally wrong perspective. My sons problems when playing with others are 1. losing , 2. others breaking rules, 3. others changing rules , its taken a long time he's 11 now and can tolerate things to a certain extent just through experience, for example just playing a board game with myself if I dared to win the board ended upside down, now through alot fo time and tries he excepts to be happy for me to win as I am happy when he wins and we enjoy playing the game is the important part, but with others especially playing with more than 2 people losing can still become upsetting for him but the calm down time is alot shorter. Letting others take control and steer a more free play game is hardest part, he wants to do it his way and I can play along with that but with peers it can be very upsetting to him to point he'd rather not even try anymore preferring to play solo 99% of time. Specfic rules that no one can change stunts using any of the kids imaginations but is the only way he can play with others unless the other kids all agree to follow his imagination and rules which often times can lack sense to the overall playability of the game as hes just looking at the small part and not the big picture.
Anonymous said…
"...My sons problems when playing with others are 1. losing , 2. others breaking rules, 3. others changing rules , its taken a long time he's 11 now and can tolerate things to a certain extent just through experience, for example just playing a board game with myself if I dared to win the board ended upside down..."

That's not even an ASD thing, that's a poor sportsmanship thing that a lot of NTs have too. Many, many, many people don't instinctively have good sportsmanship so we need to be taught it when we're children (like you're teaching it to your son, my parents taught it to me, etc.).

"...Specfic rules that no one can change stunts using any of the kids imaginations but is the only way he can play with others unless the other kids all agree to follow his imagination and rules which often times can lack sense to the overall playability of the game as hes just looking at the small part and not the big picture."

...and if the other kids prefer to use their own imaginations too when playing with each other, that's not discriminating against him for having Asperger's.
Rachwins said…
Really useful insight - I teach a class of 4-year old "low-functionning " (!) ASD kids, and am forever wondering what it is they're thinking of when they're playing with the sand/water/box/chair (the list goes on). Now I have something to go on!
margaret ann said…
Hi thank you for your insight, I have little boy in my class and he can sit for hours on end in one particular place, with no interaction with the other class mates. I often wondered how he was able to do so and why. Now I know.
Miguel Palacio said…
Funny thing is, I tend to feel more comfy around fellow aspies. I also feel more accepted. Plus, I don't have to try to morph into an NT-like fa├žade.
Miguel Palacio said…
As a kid, the way that I would organize my cars was based on their faces. Cars have different faces. The headlights are the eyes and the grille is the mouth. And some grilles have big teeth too. Some are happy, some sad, some mad, some look bored or pensive. Cars can have so many expressions. Then, also, my cars would interact and have conversations and play and fight. Each car had a personality.
Hempchick said…
I just found this post and wanted to say thank you. As a new mom to a ,now, toddler that may or may not have ASD, may or may not have autism, I found this article to be most helpful in setting my mind and worrisome heart at ease. My little munchkin is perfect the way she is.

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