What I Learned From My Child With Autism
This is a post in the new weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs over at AutismWonderland.
One of the simple joys of childhood is the unlimited possibility of pretend play; it’s the one time in our life where the mind can truly go anywhere and believe anything before reality and responsibility sets in.
I’ve always had a vivid imagination. As a child, I loved playing with dolls. As an adolescent, I spent many afternoons with my head buried in a book. I was always thinking about people and places and things. I was always asking who, what, where and why. And so as an adult college student, it just made sense that I study creative writing.
When Norrin was diagnosed with autism at 2 1/2 years old, he wasn’t feeding baby dolls, pretending to play telephone or wheeling cars around. Norrin had no language and the developmental pediatrician said Norrin had no imaginative play skills. As a writer, to hear that my son lacked imagination seemed ironic. And as a mother, it seemed cruel that Norrin lacked the ability to pretend.
When a parent hears the words, “your child has autism,” for the first time, it is easy to imagine the worst. It is easy to put a limit on life possibilities. At the time, I never imagined that pretend was something that can be taught.
There are times when I like to stand at Norrin’s door, watching him play with his trains. I am amazed that he always creates the tracks in different and complex patterns. When he’s finished, he lines up the trains and starts pulling them through his pretend train world. Calling each train by name, engaging in pretend play. Norrin creates dialogue between the trains. Most of it scripted – a combination of lines memorized from books and cartoons – though he’s using the lines appropriately, recreating his own story. While scripting may be considered a self-stimulating behavior, I allow Norrin to continue since the elements of pretend play are there. And sometimes when he lets me, I sit with him and incorporate my own dialogue with the characters so that we are pretending together.
I will never forget the Saturday afternoon Norrin pretended to be someone else – an astronaut. He sat inside his rocket ship tent and counted down from ten. And just as Norrin screamed “Blast Off!” my husband started to shake the tent. Norrin giggled and said, “Again, Daddy! Let’s blast off again!” But before counting down, Norrin grabbed his astronaut action figure, so they could journey into space together.
Our reading time has also helped Norrin’s sense of pretend play. We read books that introduce creativity and imagination like Harold and the Purple Crayon, Tar Beach and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. I encourage Norrin to make up his own stories, using the books he loves as models. It doesn’t always make sense, but we are communicating, taking turns, having a conversation. He looks me in the eye.
Autism has taught me to appreciate these small moments of play that so many parents take for granted. I love watching Norrin’s imagination expand day by day. I love the sound of Norrin’s laugh as he plays. I love the sight of him – eyes bright or squeezed shut, nose crinkled, shoulders shaking with excitement. I love to wonder about the world he imagines. And I look forward to the day when he can tell me.
What has your child taught you?