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!

Advertisements

A Problem of Discipline: My Toddler

Back in April I started a three-part series grandly entitled How to Discipline a Toddler because I was a smug git. At the time I had a very well-behaved toddler that I was easily able to understand and control, a foolproof weapon called the Naughty Step that could solve any problem, and the patience of a saint. The world could only stand to benefit from the fruits of my experience.

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that after starting this series, the frequency of my posts dropped off the face of the Earth, and I am yet to write number three. The reason for this, I can now reveal, is that almost immediately after starting to write about how great I am at disciplining my toddler, things became slightly more problematic – which is a nicer way of saying that my daughter Izzie morphed into a freaking demon child.

Despite my best attempts to stress that good behaviour is not dependant on an external force but an internal sense of right and wrong, Izzie has decided that if I don’t see her misbehave then it must be okay. I know this because she has told me as much – repeatedly.

It’s my own fault for not being clear in my language – for allowing her a legal loophole she can exploit.

‘The next time I see you snatch your sister’s toy off her, you’re on the naughty step.’

‘Okay, daddy, I make sure you not see me.’

Little bastard! If I’m cooking in the kitchen while she’s misbehaving in the lounge and I tell her off, she often closes the door and shouts, ‘You not see, it’s okay,’ and goes right back to doing it.

Sometimes she even tells me when she’s about to be naughty: ‘Daddy, don’t look, I going to push Rosie over.’

She understands the concept of differential authority too. ‘Take your sister’s dummy out of your mouth, you know your mum hates it.’

She takes it out and looks around. ‘Where is mummy?’ she asks.

‘She’s in the bath.’

So she puts the dummy back in and grins at me with an I-outsmarted-you look on her three-year-old face.

Of course, this is nothing next to the tantrums that occur Every. Single. Time. We. Say. No.

It’s a constant battle for supremacy.

‘I want to get dressed downstairs.’

‘No, upstairs.’

Tantrum.

‘I want ice cream for breakfast.’

‘No, you’re having cereal.’

Tantrum.

‘Here’s your juice.’

‘I want it in that cup.’

‘Well it’s already in this cup.’

Tantrum.

And this is all before 8 o’clock! If I could drink toddler tears, I’d never have to use the tap again.

Then there’s the insolence. Every night, for example, at some point during the night she opens all her drawers and throws every item of clothing out over the floor – and since my wife is a hoarder, that’s a lot of clothes. So every night before bedtime I say to her, ‘You will not make a mess tonight or I will be very cross with you in the morning.’

She grins at me and says, ‘I’ll make a little mess.’

‘No,’ I say. ‘No mess. All your clothes are to stay in your drawers.’

‘Okay, I’ll only empty one drawer.’

‘No. No drawers.’

And then I’ll catch her doing it in the night, and I’ll snap, ‘What did I say about not making a mess?’

And she’ll laugh and shout, ‘You say I can make a big, big mess.’

Argh!

She’s also become really mean. It first happened when I was trying to get my youngest, Rosie, off to sleep. I was rocking her in my arms about 8.30, an hour after I’d put Izzie to bed, when Izzie appeared in her doorway and informed me that she had decided to have a bath and if I didn’t like it, I should simply look away.

‘Izzie,’ I replied. ‘Close the door and go back to bed.’

‘No, daddy,’ she said. ‘You listen to me. I having a bath.’

‘Actually, you’ll close that door and go back to bed by the count of three or I’ll cancel you seeing Granny tomorrow.’

‘Daddy,’ she said defiantly, ‘daddy, you not talk to me ever again and I not talk to you ever again, okay?’

‘Be that as it may, ONE, TWO…’

The door slammed, and I heard lots of sobbing and muttering interspersed with the words ‘daddy naughty’, over and over. Sucks to be me.

This has grown into a daily tirade of, ‘Daddy, I not like you anymore. Daddy, you very naughty. Daddy, I love mummy but not you. I not talk to you anymore. Daddy, if I have to choose you or mummy, I always choose mummy.’

Which, despite her being a toddler, is incredibly hurtful.

As are the lies she’s started telling about me. Whenever she says in front of people that she doesn’t like me, they invariably ask, ‘Oh, why not?’

‘He hits me on the head and pushes me down the stairs.’

‘What!?’ I cry. ‘I do no such thing!’

Which makes me look guilty as sin.

The truth is that she’s cross with me because I discipline her, and loves her mother because she doesn’t. Indeed, her mother is her best friend who plays with her and mucks around with her and is really just a big kid to her, while I’m the authority figure who exists simply to spoil their fun.

It has, without a doubt, grown far worse since my wife has started putting Izzie to bed. I spent three years putting Izzie to bed, every single night. I spent the past ten months putting both kids to bed, every single night. I hoped, I prayed, I begged for my wife to help me out, and after three years she finally relented about a month ago and put Izzie to bed.

And from that moment on, Izzie only wants mummy to put her to bed, and tantrums if daddy tries to do it. Which, after three years of my doing it, is a real kick in the crotch.

Of course, the reason she loves her mummy doing it is because her mummy doesn’t actually put her to bed. They go to the bedroom and play. Then my wife leaves and Izzie follows her and they get into mummy and daddy’s bed and play. And then mummy goes to sleep and Izzie continues to play. And then I come upstairs and shout at Izzie for not being in bed and shout at mummy for not putting Izzie to bed, and then I put Izzie to bed and she sobs herself to sleep because daddy’s so mean and mummy is her favourite. Again, sucks to be me.

I think what bugs me most about this is that, because she is now three, she’s going to start remembering things. And despite everything I’ve done for three years, her earliest memories are going to be of her mummy playing with her and lovingly putting her to bed every night while her daddy just tells her off all the time. And that’s not fair.

What it boils down to is that my wife has all the fun, playful, exciting quality time with Izzie, while I get to do all the practical things, like wiping her bottom, cutting her fingernails, kissing her ‘ouchies’ away, taking her to the doctor, ripping off her plasters, removing her splinters, and putting her on the Naughty Step. No wonder she doesn’t like me!

I’m not sure how I can change this, however. My wife encourages me to play with her more often, but my attempts to be a fun dad have only made things worse.

A typical example – we sit down to play with her Sylvanian Families and I pick up a hedgehog and put it in the toy car.

‘Brrmm, brrmm,’ I say, before she snatches it off me and shouts, ‘No, they having a picnic!’

I see she has arranged the chairs in a circle.

‘Okay,’ I say, picking up another toy. ‘Here comes Mrs Rabbit,’ and I put her in a chair.

‘No!’ Izzie cries. ‘She sitting over here.’

‘Okay,’ I say, picking up another. ‘Where does Mr Panda sit?’

‘Mr Panda not invited!’ she shouts, slapping it out of my hand. ‘You not doing it right!’

‘Well then!’ I shout back. ‘If you won’t let me do anything then I won’t blinking well play with you!’

And then she goes to her mum all stroppy and whines, ‘Daddy not playing with me.’

I tell you, she’s driving me crazy. As if to sum it all up, she has a new favourite song. I always flick between the rock channels on TV and I stumbled across an old hip-hop classic which she instantly fell in love with. In a moment I’ve come to regret, when she asked me what it was, I told her.

We have an Amazon Dot…or Echo, or whatever it’s called. Izzie used to say, ‘Lexa, play Tinkle, Tinkle,’ and it’d play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star by The Rainbow Collection. Ahhh.

She’s not so pure any more.

‘Lexa, play House of Pain, Jump Around.’

And then she proceeds to jump around the lounge shouting, ‘House of Pain! House of Pain! House of Pain!’

And it truly is.

But that’s only half the reason I’m blogging so rarely. The other half turned eleven months the other day, and I’ll describe that demon child in another post – if I ever get the chance again!

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!

AS, Children and Play

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!