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 Funny Toddler

‘No chi-shen no poo daddy!’

That’s what my daughter shouts every morning when I let the chooks out of their house – no, chickens, don’t poop on my daddy.

Like most of the things she says, you have to train your ear to hear it properly. Having a toddler, you spend your life picking through the mispronunciations and the comedy juxtapositions, fighting to make sense of it all. Every morning when I brush her teeth, I have to put poo-paste on the poo-brush. All day I’m asked to shit on the phwoar. And every night I put boo-balls in the bart so she can have a bubble-bath.

But sometimes, I frankly don’t have a clue what she’s saying. That’s when she shouts at me in frustration. Because what’s plain to her isn’t always obvious to everyone else.

Like yesterday, when I asked her what she wanted for lunch. ‘Piss, please,’ she said excitedly.

‘Piss?’

‘Piss, please, daddy.’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Piss, daddy. Piss. Pissssss!’

‘Honey, she says she wants piss for lunch.’

‘She means crisps.’

‘Oh thank God for that.’

At least it’s different to what she normally requests – ‘Cheese and marmite,’ morning, noon and night. I’m fine putting it on her toast, in her wraps and croissants. Not on chips or fish fingers. I refuse to put it on her yoghurt. Tonight, just to shut her up, I put a big dollop of marmite in the risotto I was making. It’s not an experiment I intend to repeat.

Then there’s her favourite expression. Every few minutes she sits on the floor among her toys, looks up at me and says, ‘Punch me, daddy. Punch me.’ Or she’ll be hanging halfway over the stairgate. ‘Punch me, daddy, punch me.’ Or slipping off her seatbelt while I’m doing sixty along a country lane, forcing me to pull over yet again. ‘Punch me, punch me.’ Don’t tempt me…

From contextual clues, I think it means some combination of ‘Play with me’ and ‘help me,’ but where she’s got it from, I have no idea.

Driving has become awkward of late. Every time I stop – at lights, in traffic, at a junction – she shouts, ‘Doe!’ and scares the life out of me. And no matter how I try to explain that I can’t go because there are four cars in front of me, it makes no difference to her. ‘Doe, daddy, doe, doe!’

In the car, she also has a captive audience. I’m fine with the singing – it’s mostly Wheels on the Bus. ‘The conductor on the bus says “All Aboard”‘ becomes ‘Ad-jee boose “ball baball,”‘ but that’s okay. What’s definitely not okay is when she says, ‘Daddy, a diddin?’

‘What am I doing? I’m driving, sweetheart.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a diddin?’

‘Driving. I literally just said it.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a diddin?’

‘Conjugating Latin verbs. I’m teaching a class of underprivileged children to read Martial’s epigrams in the original language.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a diddin?’

‘Quadratic equations. It’s part of a project to solve the energy crisis using quantum mechanics.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a mummy diddin?’

But if I don’t answer, I just get an endless stream of ‘daddy, daddy, daddy,’ so I pick the lesser of those two evils, and die a little inside each day.

She thinks I’m the master of horses, too. We’re lucky enough to live on the edge of the New Forest, so wherever we go in the car, we have to avoid scores of ponies walking in the road. And every time we pass a horse or two, she says, ‘More gee-gee. Daddy, more gee-gee. Daddy? Daddy!’

‘I can’t magically conjure up horses out of thin air!’ I reply.

‘Oh,’ she replies, subdued. And then, ‘More gee-gee, daddy. More gee-gee!’

She’s started experimenting with her voice too. She’ll scream with excitement. And then, discovering the wonderful noise, walk around screaming for the next ten minutes. Same with crying – she gets over whatever made her cry, but then becomes so enamoured of the noise she’s making she keeps it going. On and on and on. Until she asks you to punch her again.

This has made bedtimes somewhat unpleasant. I read to her at night – we’ve finished Treasure Island and are halfway through Black Beauty – and she’s started making this weird groaning hum every time I talk. I can hear it as I’m reading, but every time I stop at the end of a sentence or pause to take a breath, she stops. It’s like I’ve got a ghostly echo.

This same experimentation has spread to many of her reactions, which have become completely over-the-top. If I show her anything, draw anything, make anything, she looks at it, puts her hands flat on her cheeks, and goes, ‘Whooooooooaaaaaaa daddy! Wooooooooow! Daddy, whoooooaaaaa!’

She’s either incredibly impressed or her understanding of sarcasm is well beyond her 25-months.

That said, she seemed very enamoured of the tower I built this morning. She held up her index finger – ‘Wait,’ she said, rummaged through her toy box, returned with a pretend pink camera and proceeded to photograph it from all angles. Then, the tower preserved in pretend posterity, she kicked it down and laughed.

Impressively for her age, she can count to ten. Unfortunately, she thinks there are eleven numbers, since clearly it goes, ‘One, two, three, go, four, five…’ And she has her colours, too, although she gets very annoyed when I can’t tell if she’s talking about daddy’s ‘wed car’ or mummy’s ‘whet car’ (red or white).

But the worst thing she does, the most horrible thing she manages to say, is whenever she sees me without my top on. She smiles, points at my belly, and says with delight, ‘Baby girl!’

No, I’m not pregnant. It’s just fat.

‘Daddy baby girl!’

I’m now on a diet. Punch me.