Family Magazine

Accepting the Child Who Doesn't Engage During Play

By Gbollard @gbollard
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 PerspectiveIt'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 UpI 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.

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