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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Fifty things you should NEVER say to a parent…

…unless you want your eyes scratched out, especially if you don’t have kids of your own (N.B. these have all been said to me in the last month or so).

  1. She’s quite chunky, isn’t she?
  2. I think she’s had enough milk.
  3. Maybe you should change the formula she’s on.
  4. Well I think the Health Visitor’s wrong.
  5. I don’t trust NHS guidelines at all.
  6. You know dummies are bad for them, don’t you?
  7. Is that how you put her top on?
  8. Let me show you how you’re meant to do it.
  9. This is the way she prefers it.
  10. You should cook all her meals from scratch.
  11. You were up twice in the night? Well that’s not so bad.
  12. If I had kids, I’d be fine with the nights.
  13. Lack of sleep doesn’t bother me.
  14. What’s his name? He is a boy, right? Oh. What’s her name?
  15. I used to have a dog called that.
  16. He was only playing.
  17. He didn’t bite her that hard.
  18. It was her own fault for getting too close to him.
  19. It’s taught her an important lesson.
  20. Let’s not make a fuss about it.
  21. Everyone else’s children are potty-trained by now.
  22. Don’t make it an issue.
  23. She really ought to be potty-trained by now.
  24. It must be nice to sit around at home all day.
  25. Isn’t it about time you got back out to work?
  26. Having kids is no excuse for an untidy house.
  27. Why don’t I take them off your hands for a couple of hours so you can do some housework?
  28. When I have kids, I’m going to set aside an hour every day to clean.
  29. Looks like somebody has some ironing to do.
  30. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
  31. Well, you chose to be a parent.
  32. And you’ll have to keep doing this for the rest of your life.
  33. We’ve all been there, you don’t have to go on about it.
  34. Parents these days have no idea how easy they have it.
  35. When I had my kids I had nobody to help me.
  36. All this modern ‘naughty step’ rubbish.
  37. Smacking never did anyone any harm.
  38. You’re making a rod for your own back.
  39. You shouldn’t cuddle her so much.
  40. Did you see that great programme on TV last night?
  41. You really need to read this book.
  42. You look more tired every time I see you.
  43. I don’t remember you having all that grey in your beard.
  44. Why have you put on so much weight?
  45. It doesn’t get any easier.
  46. If you think this is hard, wait until…
  47. Don’t worry, they’ll be starting school in four years.
  48. You should value this time of your life.
  49. It goes by so quickly.
  50. Remember to enjoy every moment!

My Endearitating Toddler

My daughter has just reached a milestone of cognitive development – she has named a toy!

I’d like to say this is a proud moment, especially considering I never named any of my toys growing up, but in all honesty I’m not really loving what she’s called it.

‘Oh, what a lovely doll,’ people say, smiling at her. ‘Does she have a name?’

My daughter beams right back at them and replies, in her angelic voice, as though butter wouldn’t melt, ‘Chewbutts.’

‘Oh,’ they tend to reply. ‘Chewbutts?’

‘No,’ replies my daughter, and holds up her index finger like a teacher correcting a pupil’s pronunciation. ‘Chew. Butts.’

‘Well that’s an interesting name,’ they generally say. And then they give you that look, the one that is somehow sympathetic and supportive while simultaneously questioning your parenting ability and your fitness to reproduce.

This seems to be our lot in life at the moment. My daughter mastered her first complete sentence the other day, copying something from one of her toys: ‘I love cookies.’ But she doesn’t say cookies. She thinks she’s saying cookies, but she’s not.

She’s saying, ‘I love titties.’

She loves dropping it into conversation whenever and wherever she can. Particularly when you’re around judgemental strangers at the supermarket.

‘I love titties.’

‘Cookies.’

‘Titties.’

‘Cookies!’

I’ve created a word to describe this phenomenon – well, I’ve slammed together two pre-existing words, so it’s not that impressive:

Endearitating, adj. – those utterly adorable behaviours you cherish and seek to encourage that simultaneously drive you up the freaking wall.

Words are a real problem at the moment. I’m daddy, which is pretty obvious and straightforward. Nana is dada, which is a little more confusing. And dad means a multitude of things. So a typical conversation goes like this:

‘Daddy.’

‘Yes Izzie?’

‘Dad.’

‘Yes?’

‘Dad.’

‘What is it?’

‘Daddy?’

‘What!?’

‘Dad!’

‘What!? For the love of God, what do you want!?’

‘Dad! Dad!’

And then I realise she’s seen a cat out of the window – a dad. And she’s saying, daddy, look at dat, it’s a cat.

Those are the easy conversations – the ones with an object where she’ll shut up once you’ve acknowledged it. Harder still are the times she really is saying daddy and has no idea what she wants – but she’s damned sure she’s going to make you suffer until she gets it.

‘Daddy?’

‘Yes, darling?’

‘Daddy?’

‘Yes?’

‘Daddy?’

‘What do you want?’

‘Daddy?’

‘Yes?’

‘Daddy?’

‘I’m not going to keep doing this.’

‘Daddy? Daddy? Daddy! Dadd-deeee! DADD-DEEEE!’

‘What!?’

‘…daddy?’

She’s also reached that point where she cares deeply about other people, something that’s beautiful, and commendable, and gosh-darned annoying.

‘Where’s dada?’

‘Nana’s in France.’

‘Oh. And poppa?’

‘He’s with nana.’

‘And gry-ee?’

‘Granny’s also in France.’

‘George?’

‘He’s in France with granny.’

‘Oh. Dada?’

‘I just told you – she’s in France.’

‘And poppa?’

‘In France, with nana.’

‘Gry-ee?’

‘Like I said, granny’s in France, with George, before you ask.’

‘Oh. And dada?’

‘France! With poppa.’

‘And Gry-ee?’

‘She’s in France! With George, in France!’

‘Oh. And dada?’

This conversation occurs at least ten times a day. If we fail to answer, it’s a case of ‘Dada? Dada? Daddy, where’s dada? Dada? Daddy? Dada! Where’s dada? Where’s dada!’

And between these conversations, she picks up the TV controller, a wooden block, your watch, and talks into it as a phone. ‘Dada? Poppa?’ Then she hands it to you and says, ‘Dada, daddy. Daddy, dada.’ And you find yourself talking to your mum through your own shoe.

My sanity is hanging by a thread.

Rather adorably, she’s very concerned about our welfare, too. Rather annoyingly, she won’t let up. If you finish your breakfast before her, which is every day, she says:

‘Daddy, more.’

‘No, I’m fine thanks, I’ve finished.’

‘Daddy, more.’

‘No, I’ve finished.’

‘More, daddy.’

‘No more, I’ve finished.’

‘Daddy, more.’

‘Can you please just leave me alone?’

‘Yes. More daddy, daddy more. Daddy? More?’

There is also an obsession with making sure our toiletry habits are healthy and regular.

‘Daddy wee wee?’

‘No, daddy doesn’t need to wee wee.’

‘Daddy poo poo?’

‘Nope, I’m good, ta.’

‘Wee wee poo poo, daddy.’

‘No, I don’t need to.’

‘Daddy wee wee.’

‘No.’

‘Daddy poo poo.’

‘Go bother your mother.’

This same concern occurs if you happen to close your eyes for five seconds.

‘Daddy, tay?’

‘I’m okay, sweetie.’

‘Daddy, tay?’

‘Yes, I’m okay.’

And if, God-forbid, you lie back on the sofa and put your feet up, you’re met with, ‘Daddy, tay?’

‘Yes, I’m okay.’

‘Tup, daddy.’

‘Just give me thirty seconds to myself.’

‘Daddy, tup. Tup, daddy.’

And then she’ll climb onto my chest and start pulling at my eyelids to make sure I’m okay and I’m going to get up.

She’s also reached that important stage where she discovers the concept of ownership and has to decide what belongs to whom.

‘Daddy car.’

‘Yes, that’s my car.’

‘Mummy car.’

‘Yes, that’s mummy’s car.’

‘Daddy car.’

‘Uh-huh, that’s my car.’

‘Mummy car.’

‘Are we really doing this again?’

But at least that’s preferable to her notion that almost everything else belongs to her. Mine, mine, mine is a constant refrain in our house.

And she doesn’t turn two until next week. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.

But you can’t get mad at her, even though you want to. She’s not doing it on purpose. At least, I hope she isn’t.

She truly is the most endearitating person I’ve ever met.