Watching neuro-normal children play - is literally a breath-taking experience for me. I'm taken aback by how realistic it often is. How dynamic, how imaginativ, how very gritty and complicated with human emotions it gets.
Some of it is downright mean and uncomfortable, like the time I watched a heavy-set black girl with bouncing braids, grab a hold of an obviously popular blonde at the playground with the question "can I be a princess?" only to be told - with a steel-cold appraisal - "no, you are a maid."
And I'm only talking pre- and elementary schoolers.
Gus' play is so much more subtle, often wordless, mostly noiseless and free of messy emotions. Heavily borrowed from books and movies, the narratives move along scripted lines that are strictly observed, sometimes down to who can say what and what toy can be used. He is easily entertained, can occupy himself well for hours at a time and never EVER tells me he is bored.
He does, however, have a heavy reliance on videos for inspiration for his play. Ever since we've been sick before and after Christmas (and during the holidays for that matter) we have slipped into a pretty heavy DVD habit, so much so, that that is often the first thing he requests out of bed in the morning.
It makes me sad, because this sweet boy, just a year ago, would nestle himself into my lap (regardless of what I was doing, sitting or standing up) and request to be read to.
True, I wanted to burn a few books, because we had red them endlessly, but now I miss the fact that he prefers movies to my voice.
Between the movie addiction and the fact that he plays in a highly controlled way, Gus is not a hot ticket in the local playdate circuit, almost all of his "friends" prefer to play with others - and I can't really blame them.
What has motivated me to beef up on the playful side of things - we do academic skills with "homework" already every day - is the fact that Gus is beginning to recognize and appreciate the idea of friends. He is excited when he sees them. He is sad when they leave - but for the most part, he is completely helpless when it comes to woe them with interesting play narratives. He has started to be tender with a Teddy Bear, talking to him like you would to a sibling or friend. I think it is his way to "practice" the whole confusing frienship thing.
I watched him today as two boys his age began to assemble a Teepee. He aimlessly wandered behind both, picked up a limb, but thought the game was about knocking down the rickety lean-to that the two had been working on.
Needless to say. He didn't make a friend today.
So with all that said, Gus and I are now enrolled in an intense 10-month program to learn to play. The program's goal is to give Gus better play skills to take on the road and their tag line is "be your child's best play buddy"
I'm dead serious.
I'm almost embarassed (actually, I'm not at all) to admit this, but I'm a lousy play partner. I'm not animated enough. I'm not silly, nor imaginative. Get me down on my knees and hand me some Hot Wheels or blocks and I go from witty to wooden. I ask Gus a million questions, I quiz him on colors, numbers, shapes, anything I can think of to make the play at hand, a boring academic lesson. I repeat things he says, haplessly and to make things worse, I instruct and come up with my own - perfectly boring - ideas of what we should play.
It's pittyful. And I now have proof of it.
A 15-minute video tape, made of me and Gus at play. It's all part of the play project we are enrolled in.
Basically, a very nice homeworker with lots of experience working with children with autism, visits us once a month and for three hours we play, talk about how to play and model play to each other. She brings toys. Gus already loves her.
And for the most part he stays with all the adult excitement we create around the topic of play.
Brooks (our homeworker) video-tapes parts of all this and then sends me a write-up/critique with the video and gives me oodles of suggestions.
Sounds crazy...it probably is - at least to all you lucky ones out there with responsive children who are in close touch with your inner child.
I have neither.
So I need help.
And after just one visit, I feel like this is worthwile and we can benefit a lot from this.
What we learned so far is that Gus' echolalia (his huge storage of memorized phrases) throws us off into thinking that he can play at a higher level than he can really sustain (example: He'll talk about washing cars, but he doesn't pretend to wash cars...he just talks about it, while moving cars around).
Also, I need to stop teaching and instructing and be more sensitive to his cues (like when he turns away from me or refuses all eye contact). Also I need to work on being ANIMATED (yep, upper case for EMPHASIS!!!) and make it FUN (same deal).
Until our next visit. We are going back tot he basics. Play chase, ball toss, hide and seek, flashlight tag, crash trucks, fill up the dump truck with dirt and fake sleeping (this one is going to be Daddy's specialty) where we are supposed to fall into all sorts of silly sleep poses (complete with noises) and wait for Gus to wake us up (shrieking, startling) then fall asleep - silly - again.
It all sounds so silly, but even for someone as play-impaired as me, being able to play and taking enjoyment from playing is self-evident in its importance. It's how we practice interaction, prepare for tricky social situations. Modulate our behavior and most of all keep our imagination lubed up. Play is where everything starts.
I'm pretty rusty, but willing to be primed.
My goal is to give Gus a love of play and hopefully - somewhere down the line - a few friendly interactions with children, whom he will call friends, even if they don't ever think of him as a friend.
I have yet to figure out why a God, who cherishes a personal relationship with us above all, would create people like Gus, who can't relate out of their own volition.
But that's a topic for another post.