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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Aspie Family Update, Pt 2

The continuing update into my nineteen-month old daughter’s past couple of months, in which she has developed from a cute, precocious, intelligent and outgoing little girl into a cute, precocious, intelligent and outgoing little girl who throws a tantrum if she doesn’t get what she wants.

Telephones

Izzie has loved telephones for a long time, but in the past couple of months her proficiency has developed tenfold. Before, she would grab her mummy’s phone and after entering the wrong code several times, lock it for the next five minutes; now she presses the button on the side, thus opening the camera app, and uses that to get to the photographs, bypassing the code altogether. Once there, she swipes through the various pictures, lingering on those of herself (she has developed a considerable amount of vanity too), and if it’s a video, she taps it with her finger to make it play.

It’s true what they say – the younger generations really do find it easier to understand technology. I mean, she’s pre-verbal, can’t read or speak beyond monosyllabic grunts, but she can navigate a mobile phone using the touch screen. Makes me feel really stupid that I can barely check the time on my phone without accidentally sending a text message!

The trouble comes when Izzie gets hold of the house mobile. She loves pushing the buttons, holding it up to her ear, and saying, ‘Ay-oh? Ay-oh?’ She loves snatching it off you when you’re in the middle of a conversation, then chattering away to whoever’s on the other end in Izzie-ese, before saying, ‘Bye-bye,’ and disconnecting. And in particular, she loves playing with it when you’re not about.

The first time I heard it dialling out, I grabbed it off her and hung up. The second time, a few days later, I heard a voice saying, ‘That number has not been recognised.’ We’ve been very careful since then, so I have no idea how she got the phone a few days ago. I heard a voice, quiet, distant, just on the edge of my perception, saying, ‘What is the nature of your emergency?’

I used to be an emergency call operator, and of the ninety calls I took a day, at least two were from toddlers playing with phones (or occasionally people dusting them). When I worked for the police, I used to call back and give the parents a bollocking; now that I’m one of those parents, I’m so glad the 999 call taker accepted my apology and let me simply hang up.

I’m not looking forward to our next phone bill, however.

Imaginative Play

A couple of months ago Izzie would imitate our behaviours without really understanding the why’s and wherefore’s of what she was doing. Now, instead of simply imitating us, she actively plays with things using her imagination. It might not sound like a lot, but it’s a massive leap forward.

Like her dolls, for example. I never thought I’d be the father of a child who plays with dolls. Not because I didn’t want to perpetuate patriarchal gender roles, but because it never really factored into my thinking. Keyboard, teddy bear, colouring book, toy car – that’s my thinking when it comes to entertaining kids, whatever their sex.

My wife Lizzie, on the other hand, is very much into buying Izzie play kitchens, plastic food, shopping trolleys, push chairs and, since November, dolls. Big dolls, little dolls, skinny dolls, fat dolls – we now live in a doll’s house. And other than being freaky and creepy as hell, it’s rather illuminating.

When we first gave her a doll, Izzie stuck her fingers in its eyes, trying to peel off the veneer, and flung it about like any other plaything. But within a couple of weeks, she started caring for it. She gets out the changing mat, finds a nappy and tries to change it; she brushes its (non-existant) hair; she tries to feed it and give it water; and she cuddles it.

The most important thing about this is that she knows the doll isn’t real, but she pretends it is real. Instead of simple imitation, she is playing, experimenting, using her imagination to have fun. I know this because she picks up imaginary food in her fingertips, feeds it to the doll, feeds it to herself, feeds it to her mother and me, and giggles every time we pretend it’s real.

She has recently acquired a number of Barbie dolls and greatly enjoys sitting them on the sofa to watch TV, changing their outfits, kissing them, and then making them kiss each other. Much as I dislike dolls, we may be introducing a Ken to the party…

Organising and Locating

Speaking of kissing, Izzie has become very bossy when it comes to how she wants things. If I kiss her goodbye, she points at me and then at mummy, and nods her head as if to say, ‘Now you kiss mummy.’ Once I’ve kissed mummy, Izzie then puckers her lips at mummy, and as soon as her mother has kissed her, she points at mummy and then at me, and nods her head to say, ‘Now mummy, you kiss daddy.’ I’ll tell you, all this goodbye kissing is exhausting!

But the pointing and demanding is not limited to that, oh no. Every meal time, she likes to stipulate where we all sit. She looks at mummy then points to a chair, and once mummy sits, she looks at me and points to another chair. If we don’t sit in the chair she’s specified or, God forbid, we muck about and I sit in mummy’s chair while she sits in mine, then Izzie lets us know just how cross we make her.

Every morning after I’ve changed her nappy she opens a drawer and picks out the vest and tights she wants to wear, and if I dress her in those she then opens the wardrobe and chooses a dress. After which she heads to the mirror and checks herself out, smoothes her hair (vanity), and generally giggles at how good she looks. To be fair, she does have a keen eye for an outfit, but I do sometimes have to step in at some of the hideous combinations. Peppa Pig leggings don’t go with just anything, you know!

This particularity extends to where she wants things. This book? She wants it here. That teddy bear? Put it there. No, not there: an inch to the left. No, your other left. Oh, give it here, I’ll put it where it’s meant to go. There. Or maybe there. You know what? It looked better where you put it first time.

Books

And lastly, she has fallen in love with books. So much so, in fact, that when she goes to bed,  instead of cuddly toys she picks out a couple of books to sleep with. She can’t actually read them, but she likes the pictures, I guess.

This actually serves a double benefit. It means most nights she goes down without a fuss. I place her on her back in the cot and she opens her book and is happy as you like. I tell her goodnight and she pretty much waves me away as if to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, goodnight, dad, shut up, I’m reading.’ And if she wakes early, then she entertains herself with her books instead of getting us up. It’s a win-win.

Except if I have to read ‘Maisy’s Bus’ one more time, I’m going to feed Maisy Mouse to Charley Crocodile, and then who’ll drive? Cyril Squirrel? Not bloody likely!