As a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome, albeit undiagnosed, I never understood how to play with others.
At playschool I’d wander straight through the middle of the toy farm the other kids had carefully set out, trampling the animals underfoot and kicking apart the barns without realising it, and unable to comprehend why they were cross with me.
When I tried to play with my brother, I couldn’t get into the fantasy the way he could – the toys were plastic, or wooden or cloth, and had no existence beyond my own control. I cared for them as objects, not as independent beings. They didn’t have feelings – they didn’t mind being thrown against the wall or stuffed under the sofa. Just so long as no one else touched them.
Because I didn’t share. What was mine was mine, and what was yours was yours until it was either mine, or I broke it so you couldn’t have it. As a young child, it’s safe to say I was an asshat.
And I didn’t know how to mix with my peers. We used to go camping almost every weekend, and every weekend we’d be sent to play with the other kids on the campsite. My brother would take it in his stride, marching up to complete strangers and joining them in football or climbing trees or riding bikes – I’d hide behind him and never know what to say or do.
When I tried to be funny, I came across as spiteful; when I wanted to be cool, I was condescending; and playfulness always turned into physical domination where my clumsiness and misunderstanding of appropriate behaviour turned me into a one-man wrecking ball – and that’s when it wasn’t deliberate. When it was, it was much worse. No wonder I couldn’t make any friends!
At eleven months old, Izzie loves playing with the other kids – and I am finding it like pulling teeth.
Every time she crawls towards another child, I watch her like a hawk and get so tense I’m lucky I don’t drive my fingernails through my palms. I see other parents just dump their kids and let them get on with it, but I perch on the edge of my seat ready to pull them apart at the slightest sign of aggression from either side. It’s the most uncomfortable thing I’ve experienced as a dad.
‘Why’s she doing that?’ I think as she pulls a brick out of another child’s hand. ‘Now why’s she doing that?’ I wonder as she passes it back. I’m fine when she plays by herself, but the second she starts to move towards another toddler I cringe and hope she stops before she reaches them because I don’t understand why she wants to play with them.
It’s my problem, I know. You’re supposed to let kids figure out the social rules for themselves, with a little guidance. I’m not going to stop her playing with other children, but damn I wish it was easier.
I’m terrified the other kids will hurt her. I’m terrified they’ll make her cry and she’ll sit there screaming and grow up to be a recluse like me. But more than that, I’m terrified she’ll do something to the other child, and she’s too young to understand the consequences of her actions, but everyone will look at me, and judge me, and realise what a bad dad I am, raising a little tearaway. And I’m worried they’re right, and a dad with AS won’t be able to provide for his child’s social education.
And the thing is, it’s not an idle fear – Izzie’s bloody strong for a toddler. While I was bathing her this evening she rammed her finger so far up my nose it took five pieces of toilet paper to staunch the flow of blood. What if she hits another child? Pulls their hair? Scratches them? Oh God, what would I do then?
The thing with autism is that you like to control your life. You minimise your exposure to stressful, unpredictable social situations in order to protect yourself. Izzie playing by herself in the lounge I can cope with fine as I understand it and can control the variables – the moment you introduce a second child, all control and predictability goes out the window.
But unfortunately, for Izzie’s sake, I have to expose myself to increasingly stressful, unpredictable social situations so she can learn to function as a socially active neurotypical child. I can’t allow my own hang-ups to hold her back.
I just need to learn how to relax when my little girl is learning how to play with others – or at the very least make sure my fingernails are cut so short I can’t do myself any serious damage!