Appropriate play skills or creative and thoughtful ? That has always been our question and we just got our answer. What if Johnny was enjoying “mastering skills” and this made him feel good?
One of the things that has always bothered my husband and I were the well meaning professionals making assumptions about how Johnny played with toys. Of course it really stood out when he was playing with toys in his developmental assessment for identification as being on the Autism Spectrum. He was given two bins, blocks, a dump truck and other small toys and instead of driving it around he would take the small toys and place them in the bin and then dump them on the floor and do this over and over again. He would lie on his side on the floor and take the truck and move it slowly back and forth watching it move. I was told he had no play skills because he was not demonstrating that he understood that he should put little people in the driver seat and drive the truck around the room and was instead just fascinated with watching the wheels spin around and around. Dumping toys and refilling bins was a sign of a repetitive behaviour and another sign of not understanding how to play like other children.
At the time my gut instinct told me that yes other children if given these toys would do what the doctor suggested but other typically developing children were able to talk and were not in a scary hospital, in a room hearing a lady talk about him in front of him to his Mommy and Daddy and discuss everything he was not doing wrong. The assumption was that Johnny was not cognitively aware enough to understand what was being said even though as parents we knew that was not the case. We were new to this, intimidated overwhelmed and worried and didn’t know we should have pushed for any discussion about Johnny should have been done without him present because its not very respectful of him. I now know that Johnny was demonstrating mastering a spatial skill hence emptying and refilling the bins over and over again and sorting the objects. He was doing this because he was in a situation that filled him with a lot of anxiety and was demonstrating a coping skill. Today when Johnny is experiencing anxiety about going to school or coming home from school he sits down and tries to build a complicated challenging structure or cut out with scissors tiny pictures from the grocery flyers. Mastering these skills and doing it over and over feel good and give him a sense of pride and accomplishment and as well as re-organize him and help him cope with anxiety.
As for the truck, we now know from talking to him that Johnny was never just watching the wheels spin but he was figuring out how the wheels were turning together because of the axel that was linking the wheels and turning them both at the same time. He was figuring out how it worked. As simple or as complicated as that. As for lining up the cars and trucks? He was recreating at a young age the traffic jams on the main street in our neighbourhood that we have walked along since he was a baby. We always suspected this but were told that because of Autism he likes to line things up and we should help him learn to “play” with trucks. Now Johnny tells his the name of the street he is re-creating and why he chooses the order of vehicles as he “drives” each truck up with a little toy person driving. I suspect that a few years ago he was not fascinated with the people driving them but the vehicles themselves and now he knows that cars and trucks don’t drive themselves and shows his sister this every day when she plays with his toys.
Has Johnny been to many social playgroups where he has been demonstrated typical play skills? Yes but I think what we were seeing at an early age that the reason why he would get focused on a narrow interest was it made him feel good to master a skill. The interventions taught him to move past his focus and take a risk and try something new. In order for a child or anyone to take a risk they need to feel confident to do and know its okay to make mistakes. When you have fine and gross motor challenges its not easy to have the confidence to do things when many things are challenging. I wonder if, slowly as Johnny has developed his dexterity he has also developed the confidence to be a risk taker and leave his comfort zone and challenge himself to master new skills. Adding people to cars and trucks and driving them around is adding another layer to the skill he is mastering. I now understand that at a very young age Johnny was mastering a skill by lining his vehicles up which sensory wise made him feel good but cognitively he was doing sequencing and demonstrating that he understood patterning. Patterning and sequencing are introduced in Senior Kindergarten and taught in grade 1 in Mathematics and is an essential component in learning and understanding Mathematics in later years.
Below are examples of what Johnny likes to build before he goes to school or when he returns and how he likes to re-purpose some things in order to re-create places he has seen.
Appropriate play skills or creative and thoughtful…I will let you decide?