Sunday, September 23, 2007

Why Games?

My husband, taking a look at my web site this morning, said to me "You know if I were a dad, whose child had just been diagnosed with autism, I would think this was pretty serious business and playing games would not be my first inclination."

Good point. Well, first let me say that playing games would only be part of the parenting strategy that I would recommend. I am keenly aware of how complicated and serious it can be to parent a child with any of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). But I would contend that this is an argument for learning how to play together. Connecting with your child through play can be the most pleasurable aspect of parenting and it can offer your child a pleasurable way to be with you. When life is challenging, we need joy and connection more than ever.

There are plenty of reasons to play, and I will discuss some of these, but play is like flowers--it may have a reason, but it does not require a reason.

Play is an essential activity of childhood. It is perhaps the most essential learning activity of childhood. Play is important throughout life but in childhood, it is nature's unparalleled way of teaching a child about body, mind, and spirit. Play teaches a child how to regulate emotions, how to navigate the social world and how to interact with the physical world. Play is the inclination that introduces us to possibilities in the smallest ways (e.g. these kinds of things are easy to spin!) and the largest ways (e.g. being kind to others is a choice). Play is play because, while it is activity that is pursued in an organized purposeful way, it does not, superficially appear to have a purpose. Play is play because the player is intrinsically motivated to participate. No one needs to reward play to keep it going. Play is essentially little practice vignettes that resemble parts of "real life" but are under the control of the player. One might need to know how to climb in real life, but the toddler who climbs up and down off of the couch three hundred times a day, can choose to do this or not one more time, every time.

Play, for a child with autism, is quite constrained and repetitive and the limitations in their own disposition to play, limits the child's development. It is not enough to put a child with autism next to an expert player (another child) and expect that more typical play will be contagious. For most children, the mental world of the typical child in play is too distant from the mental world of the child with autism. For the child with autism, the play that other children create usually includes too much variation, too much language, too much shifting of attention. Neurological differences make this kind of play confusing. See Creating Common Ground.

I use the word Games to help the adult play partner constrain their own play in ways that will help the child with autism understand what is going on and be inclined to participate. Games are really little organized routines of interaction that may include toys (or may not), that will include social engagement, that will include communication in some form, and that will usually include an interesting sensory experience (doing something that is perceived by the senses as stimulating or soothing). These Games have a simple structure--a short repeated sequence of activities and language. These Games are play, however, in that they will include mental and physical challenge and gradually become more complex and more challenging. I also call these activities Games so that the adult does not turn the activity into work--which does not always have the same magic quality of pleasure that play has. A Game is a bit of a hybrid in the world of play in that it is not as free form as the play that children typically create for themselves but is non-the-less playful and intrinsically motivating, and educational and never too stressful or boring, which is insured by the premise that the child can continue or not.

The parent of a child with autism does indeed, face a serious parenting challenge. But, I believe it is important, in all this serious business, to remember that the child is a child first. Play is what children are meant to do. A child with ASD might need to be guided but it is possible for every child to engage in and enjoy play. I know there are different parenting styles, but I think playing with your child is the right of every parent, too. Most parents need to be initially guided in order to successfully play with a child who has ASD, because it is a little different at the beginning. That is the mission of the web site Autism Games--to get children and parents playing together.

Informative Blog Post on a comprehensive Autism Action Plan --minus the plan for play!


slpmn said...

I attended a workshop this fall that included a mother and son surrounded by "fun" toys. The interaction consisted primarily of the little boy telling his mother, "no" and "Aaron's turn."
This clip showed an obviously distressed mother and child.
The next clip showed the same mother and child playing a simple game with only one thing. I think it was peekaboo with silky scarf.

Playing with a child with autism can be a daunting thought, but keeping it simple and interesting is the key.

I was playing with my neurotypical 2 year old the other day. She was spinning in an office chair and was delighted when she disappeared and reappeared from view. I modified this simple activity slightly by spinning her in different directions and adding tickles. It was a simple play routine that could be stopped or picked up at any time.

sher202020 said...

I am a SLP who works with kids on the spectrum, and I also have a son with autism. So much of what is done in the schools is academics-oriented, with little or no attention paid to joint-attention, and certainly little affort made toward play. I am glad to have found your site and blog, because I believe in the importance of play. I just haven't figured out many ways to apply play to my tx...and you are a big help!