"Enough already!" I hear Mom exclaim in the session. Her son is lining the blocks up, one after another, with her nose millimeters from their edges. Exasperated, Mom looks at me and says, "This is all he does. I'm so tired of it."
Her frustration is understandable, at this boy's age most children are engaged with increasingly elaborate imaginative play with a variety of objects; fighting action figures and building forts. Not only is that play typical, but it's easier to bond with your child during these fun story lines and playful routines.
Later in the day, a father pleads with his daughter to stop drawing letters and play ball with him. She absorbed in her land of letters and numbers, carving each line deep onto the paper with a primitive grip on the ballpoint pen. She screams at the sight of the ball, refuses to touch to, and pushes him away as he attempts to get closer.
Does this sound familiar; the lining up, the rigid obsessions, the spinning, the flashing lights? These are common play behaviors for our children with autism spectrum disorders, sensory processing disorders, and other developmental disorders. And, yes, they are play! Play is our ability to interact and engage with objects for entertainment and amusement. It's how we busy our bodies and minds while we learn to rules of the world such as cause/effect, gravity, object permanence, and spatial awareness. Some children easily learn to regulate and coordinate their bodies then expand that by learning to explore and use objects before finally understanding how symbolism can be layered on top for pretend play. Other children appear to get stuck or hung up with repetitive play that may also have rigid rules and structure around it.
Why is that?
Of course, the answer is as individual as children themselves, however current research is revealing that our children with ASD struggle to find patterns and make predictions. Pattern recognition goes hand-in-hand with understanding cause and effect, also leading towards sequencing. If we struggle to recognize a pattern, it will affect our ability to connect a cause with an effect and also will hinder our ability to put a series of actions into a cohesive plan. For example, in order to engage in a pretend play task with action figures and cars, we need to understand that the doors on our cars can open and close, the action figures can sit inside, and when we push the car, the wheels will turn and go. We also need to understand how to move our hands, arms, and torso through space to achieve this. If we are still mastering play at an object exploration level, we will be focused on those wheels turning or the doors opening and closing before we can begin to attempt the next steps in the pattern. If we are still trying to figure out patterns and rules, we may start lining the cars and the action figures up, rather than playing with them together.
So what can we, the caregivers, do?
My first recommendation is always to leave your expectations and rules at the door when playing with your child. We need to enter his world, and we certainly can't being our rules into his world, at least not yet. To the best of your ability, get at his level. Try to see the world through his eyes and just observe for a time. As you feel comfortable, try to push the rules he's testing out. If he's spinning the wheels, encourage faster or slower, grab another car with different wheels to compare. Entice him with your new take on his trick and see if you can trade cars or take turns.
My next recommendation is to bask in the silence and respect his space. If your child is limited in his verbal communication, please do not use that as your chance to say all the words you want to hear! Keep your words short, simple and meaningful to the moment. Make little noises here and there, and definitely imitation or expand on anything your child says. Let this play time be in his control, and if he wants it quiet or shows he needs space, respect that.
Lastly, look for engagement. This could be as simple as him turning closer to you or even pushing your hand away. Refusal is still communication! (And it's a pretty important thing to communicate, too.) Eye contact isn't a must, but it can be a good indicator. Smiles and physical contact really let you know that you are welcome in his world, so figure out what keeps a smile going back and forth. See how you can guide him into more functional play by gentling entering his world of hidden rules and guiding him through it all at his pace.
Do you have any recommendations for expanding repetitive play? Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and ideas for other parents and caregivers.