I am reading through the parent handbook provided by our son’s speech therapist and I reach the section that begins, “Autistic children do not know how to play.”

Although I cringe when I read stuff like this, and I can think of many less offensive ways to phrase it, I understand what the authors mean. They meant to say that my son’s play is atypical. This section of the workbook — Expanding your child’s play — is all about introducing kids to interactive imaginative play. Many autistic kids do not initiate this kind of play spontaneously, or at least do so later than their peers.

The general idea of introducing imaginative play makes sense to me. M clearly wants to interact with other kids. He hovers around his cousin, fascinated by whatever she’s doing. And he’ll have better luck engaging with other three-year-olds if we can help him identify some mutual interests. His current preferred activity, adding 12-digit numbers on the Magna-Doodle, will probably not be his best conversation-starter when he enters preschool next month.

When I first started wondering if M might be autistic, it was his lack of interest in pretend play that finally convinced me to call for an assessment. Everything else I could explain away as just another quirk that ran in the family. But I had a photo of myself on my second birthday, holding a doll and pretending to nurse her. I remembered acting out puppet shows, giving names and personalities to my stuffed animals. And on every developmental questionnaire I saw the same questions: Does your child ever hold a banana and pretend it’s a phone? Does he imitate you when you wash your hands or sweep the floor?

At first, my husband and I thought if we could get rid of the “symptom,” we could solve the problem. We tried to prompt the “right” kind of play, putting a diaper on a stuffed bear and encouraging M to put him to bed or give him a bottle. He would do it when instructed, and we would sigh with relief: Look — he’s not autistic after all.

We also tried to limit the time he spent doing his favorite activities: counting, writing letters and numbers, watching digital clocks and timers, reading the same few books over and over again. The therapists and evaluators called this behavior obsessive and repetitive, and suggested that we discourage it in favor of other, more typical activities.

We worried when my father-in-law [a textbook undiagnosed Aspie himself] would sit with M for an hour at a stretch, enraptured by the digital display on his watch. They both seemed to be having a great time, but I felt a nagging pressure to redirect them into acting out a story with dolls. I worried that this might somehow be bad for M’s developing brain. Instead of noting that he seemed most happy and centered when he was playing with the kind of toys he liked (calculators, clocks, mechanical toys that wound up or spun), I felt frustrated when relatives gave him gifts that seemed to ‘feed’ his obsessive behavior.

I could usually convince him to try a different kind of play a couple times a day, but in the end he always returned to the activities that made him feel safe and comfortable. And I realized that although we might be able to change his behavior through an elaborate system of prompts and rewards, none of this was going to change what he really wantedto do. And none of it was going to make him any less autistic.

This post got me thinking again about M’s “obsessions.” As I said in the comments, I think the instinct to discourage this behavior is a response to the stigma associated with autism — especially when the behavior itself is not inherently harmful. We worry when our kids spend “too much” time with toy cars or trains or spinning tops or Legos, because those are toys that autistic kids particularly like. But parents of kids who play the violin “obsessively” for hours every day are praised for encouraging their child’s talents. We don’t worry if our neurotypical kids seem “obsessed” with a particular cartoon character or Barbie or or collectible toy.

Obviously, there are cases when repetitive behavior gets in the way of daily living. When my son refuses to eat lunch because he wants to keep drawing numbers on the Magna-Doodle, I set limits and take it away. If a child’s repetitive behavior is dangerous, self-injurious, or physically addictive, then we need to address that differently. But discouraging behavior just because we associate it with autism or because a child seemstoo intensely interested in it seems counter-productive and even cruel.

When I was six, my best friend and I spent hours in front of my house, writing down the license plate number of every car that drove by in a “detective notebook” (we read a lot of Nancy Drew). I still have some of these notebooks, and they are filled — three columns to a page, 100 pages to a book — with literally hundreds of thousands of license plate numbers. After each number, we wrote either “car,” “truck,” or “van.” I can’t remember what was so appealing about this activity, but it was obviously something I really enjoyed.

Looking at these lists of numbers today is a little creepy — they belong in the documentary about the man all the neighbors said seemed like a regular guy until they found the bodies in the basement, and then they search the house and find these hundreds of notebooks filled with license plate numbers. But my parents never told me this was obsessive or weird, and never discouraged it. When I filled one detective notebook, they bought me another.

When I was eight, my sisters and I started playing Dungeons and Dragons. It was a lot of fun, and we played it happily until I was about eleven, when it became obvious even to me that this was a very embarrassing, nerdy, socially unacceptable thing for a girl to enjoy doing. It’s actually hard to even write this publicly now, because the stigma associated with Dungeons and Dragons is still so powerful for me. I feel like I need a disclaimer — I didn’t know any better! I was a huge nerd! I was eight!

So we stopped playing. I told my sisters I thought it was stupid and I packed up all the books and dice in a box in the basement.

Today, the therapist is trying to interest M in an interactive game. She gives the stuffed monkey a piece of wooden food, then encourages M to feed him. He plays along for 30 seconds, and then repeats, “Want to do sums on the Magna-Doodle.” The therapist yawns, and says in an exaggerated voice, “M, I’m bored of the Magna-Doodle. I want to play something different. I want to play with the monkey. Numbers are boring.”

M blinks in confusion. I often tell him I can’t draw numbers on the Magna-Doodle any more, because I have to fold laundry or leave for work or answer the phone. But I’ve never told him I don’t want to do it because I think it’s boring.

I understand where the therapist is headed with this. I understand that M will encounter this response in real life, from his peers, probably starting as soon as a few weeks from now when he starts preschool. And I understand that the therapist thinks we should try to prepare him for that, and that we should practice ways he might respond productively to it.

But all I can think is that for the rest of his life he will hear, again and again, that the things he loves most passionately are boring to other people. And he will be encouraged, ordered, or shamed into doing something else instead. So I think he will have plenty of opportunities to develop ways to cope with it.

And because he has that lifetime of opportunities ahead of him, he does not need to start hearing it right now, when he’s three. And he certainly doesn’t need to hear it from me.

Sarah Schneider blogs at Kitaiska Sandwich.  Redirection appears here by permission.

Image above is of an actual Magna-Doodle; sleeping toddler is not actually M.

on 12/16/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Isabel says:

    So Sarah - how did his therapist react? I hope she got your point and will be changing her ways. I think it’s ok for her to introduce your son to the idea that not everyone is interested in the same things as he is, but it sounds like she is also telling him that he is less worthy because of the things he is interested in. I would think that her role as a therapist is to show that just because she is bored doesn’t mean he should feel like he needs to pretend to be bored too. For a lot of kids that kind of thing leads to a lifetime of pretending to be what they are not while the dominant ones get to be who they are.

  2. Sarah says:

    I think she was actually trying to teach him to follow a particular kind of verbal prompt (one that isn’t explicit). So, she would say “the monkey is hungry,” and then wait to see if he would offer it some food (rather than telling him to do it). Saying “I’m bored” was supposed to be an implicit instruction to change activities. I do understand that it’s useful to learn to interpret the intentions of others, but this particular prompt brought up a lot of other issues for me.

    One of the cardinal rules in our house is “you don’t say yuck to someone else’s food.” And telling someone what they’re doing is boring falls in the same category. It’s certainly not something I want to model for my kids. And like you, I disagree with the underlying assumption that someone else’s expression of boredom should automatically trigger a change in activities. But discussing the nuances of how you might actually respond in that situation is a little over the head of a three-year-old.

    So we worked on finding different examples of a this kind of verbal prompt. (“The baby’s tired.” — and then wait to see if he’ll put her to bed.)

Leave a Reply