One of the joys of childhood is the limitless possibility of pretend play. It’s probably one of the things that adults envy most about kids – the way they play without a care in the world. It seems so basic, an innate skill that’s part of growing up.
Before my son Norrin was diagnosed with autism, I assumed play came naturally to kids. When I was young, I loved pretend play. I’d spent entire afternoons in my room, playing with my dolls, giving them elaborate story lines. As I grew out of Barbie, my books became my source of imagination. Even now, as an adult, I pass my time on the train making up stories about the people I see during my commute to and from work.
When Norrin was two years old, he was diagnosed with autism. The evaluation report stated his “play skills were delayed and atypical” and “scattered between 6 – 18 months.” Norrin wasn’t able to stack blocks, he would “play” with his cars by spinning the wheels rather than “driving” the car around saying “vroom, vroom.”
When the doctor handed Norrin a baby doll and milk bottle, Norrin put the bottle in his mouth. And when the doctor handed Norrin a play phone, he made no attempt to say hello. I made excuses for him. “He still drinks from a bottle at night” and “he’s never seen a phone like that – we have a cordless.”
As a writer, it seemed ironic – even cruel – to hear that my son lacked imagination. I had such a vivid imagination that I wanted to build a career on it. I read to Norrin every night. How could my kid not have an imagination? And how could I teach him to play?
It didn’t seem fair. Like Norrin was missing out on something special. That he was being cheated out of the joy of just being a kid.
Over the years, I’ve learned to understand Norrin and his idea of play. I’ve watched his imaginative play skills bloom and it’s been amazing to see. He draws and colors and likes to be silly. He plays with his cars and makes the appropriate “vroom, vroom” sounds. But I don’t care so much about that now.
When it comes to expressing the concept of play and imagination to my son – we’re the ones who have had to be creative. In teaching him how to play, I’ve learned to expand my own imagination. There is this notion of “appropriate” play, meaning to fit with everyone else but I am okay with Norrin being a little different – I think his quirks are cool.
I’ve stopped focusing on teaching Norrin the right way to engage in play and instead learned to let him lead the way. And in doing so, I’ve had the chance to step into his world and learn more about the way his mind works.