Imaginative play and the autistic male

Oh my gosh, my daughter is driving me insane. Now nearing three-and-a-half, she has reached the stage where imaginative play is pretty much the only thing she wants to do, and my life has consequently devolved into an endless game of mummies and babies, doctors and nurses, car journeys, shopping trips, picnics and tea parties, and I honestly don’t know how much more I can take.

I don’t mind playing with her. I like building towers out of wooden blocks and playing with her toy trains. I like sword-fighting with her and doing flash cards and making up songs. It’s the pretending games I can’t stand.

When I spend all day and much of the night looking after a real baby, I have little interest in looking after a plastic one. When the only thing I do that isn’t looking after a baby is driving to the shops to go food shopping, it’s a real struggle to get motivated about driving an imaginary car to an imaginary supermarket to buy imaginary items with imaginary money. And I have no idea how many cups of air I’ve drunk, or wooden finger cakes I’ve scoffed, but if they were real I’d bankrupt the NHS with my soaring blood sugar and endless bladder problems.

Ironically, the easiest one to bear is being a patient in hospital.

‘Daddy, please can you play doctors with me?’

‘Do I have to do anything other than lie on the sofa?’

‘No. You got a dinosaur in your tummy and I got to cut it out and make you better.’

‘Fine, knock yourself out. I’ll just close my eyes for a minute…’

At the other end of the scale, the hardest is when she decides the four square feet between the back of the armchair and the wall is her house, and I’m her neighbour, who lives in the main part of the lounge, because she always invites me over for dance parties where I’m expected to shake my booty.

‘How about you come over to my house, where there’s much  more room?’

‘Coz it’s my party in my house.’

‘But why don’t we pretend this much bigger space is your house?’

‘Because this is my house and you need to be dancing!’

So I squeeze myself in and simply shift my weight from foot to foot, because that’s all I can do. You want to know where I get my ‘dad dancing’ from? It’s here. This. Especially when it’s to Justin freaking Fletcher. (Although to be fair, his version of ‘What does the Fox say?’ isn’t the worst song I’ve ever heard, even if my daughter sings it as, ‘Why does the fuck’s sake!’)

And she gets so into her games that anybody not buying into her reality gets short shrift.

‘The drawbridge is closed, you can’t come through here!’

‘But my coffee’s on the windowsill.’

‘You can’t come in.’

‘Well, I am because I’m going to get my coffee.’

‘No, you can’t come in, no, NO!’ Cue screaming, shouting, crying, trying to block me, holding onto my ankle as I drag her behind me across the lounge (‘You’re in the moat! You’re in the moat!’) to get my gosh-darned drink. It’s excruciating and it never seems to end.

Now, I imagine many parents have this problem, but for once I’m going to play the autism card and say, ‘I just can’t do it, and it’s because of my autism.’

I have NEVER got imaginative play, even when I was young enough to enjoy it. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I understood my own play – it was other people’s imaginative play I couldn’t get.

I’d treat my own toys as though they had thoughts and feelings. I once dragged my mother all the way back to playschool because I left my imaginary pet rabbit there. But give the same suspension of disbelief to other people’s toys and games? I didn’t have the ability.

That’s why at nursery, I’d wander straight through the middle of the farmyard the other kids had set up and not understand why they were now angry and upset – they were just pieces of plastic. That’s why I had no problem breaking my brother’s toys – they had no feelings, although he clearly did, and I’d invariably feel bad (and confused) a moment afterwards when I saw his tears. I was simply unable to appreciate that others could have the same emotional attachment to their toys and games as I did to mine – a fundamental inability to understand how other people think and feel.

And that’s why I’m struggling so much right now. I just don’t get that my daughter is investing her emotions into an imaginative reality.

However, while I might not get it, I can understand it at an intellectual level and adjust my behaviour accordingly. I know that imaginative play is important in child development, and I know that for the benefit of her emotional wellbeing, not to mention our relationship, I have to pretend that the things that are important to her are also important to me. So that’s what I do, as painful as it is.

The best way of surviving it? Biblical levels of sarcasm that she’s too young to understand.

‘What’s that? You want me to keep my voice down so I don’t wake your baby? Gosh, I wish she was just a cheap piece of hardened petrochemically-derived organic polymers, but since she’s clearly a real baby, then okay, honey, I’ll be quiet.’

‘What? Your baby has a poorly knee? Oh poor her, what an absolute tragedy. I’d better drop everything and see to it right away because it’s definitely so much more important than anything I was doing.’

‘I can’t come through here because it’s on fire? Well, let me check what’s on my utility belt, shall I? Wow, what do you know? I just so happen to have a fireproof suit I can put on. Holy asbestosis, Batman! Now get out of my way.’

Of course, if she learns to detect disingenuousness before she grows out of this imaginative phase, I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do!

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