The day after my nephew's wedding, there was a present opening event at the home of the bride. My sister and her husband were getting dressed for this event at a hotel and I was visiting with them for a bit. As my Persian/American brother-in-law gathered up his dark blue suit, my sister, in a teasing voice said "Oh, are you going to go today as an old Persian guy?" Picking up on her tone, her husband pondered "Hmmm, should I go as the old, balding, Persian Father of the Groom or should I go as a young, hip, American Dad?" She hastened to reassure him that he was not really that bald. I commented that I thought it was cool to have identity choices. He grinned and gathered his conservative suit and disappeared into the connecting room to dress.
This moment made me think about how many social signals are conveyed with clothing. It also made me think about how my best pretend play sessions with children often involve good costumes. A man's white dress shirt, a pair of swim goggles and a child who otherwise barely participated in pretend play willingly became a "scientist" in the "chemistry" lab. Teaching children with autism requires that one highlight or emphasize various aspects of social behavior and in pretend play, a good costume is a way of highlighting an identity change. You might even call a costume a "visual support" for pretend play.
I recently invited my daughter to shop with me for some new clothes and she informed me, as I made my final selections that I had not bought "new" clothes but rather had bought my "old" clothes all over again. I get stuck in my costume selections, apparently, and so too do many of my young friends. Little girls (with or without autism) may find the idea of being a "Princess" so appealing that they are unwilling to give up this role for any other. Little boys (with or without autism) may decide that a particular superhero suits and no other character will do. Spider-man is popular lately. So, while being entirely compassionate about the tendency to get stuck, I usually write a social story at the beginning of our pretend play sessions and explain when a change in costume will occur. I might write something like this:
This week, on October 1st, Amy will be a princess in a blue princess dress. Next week, on October 8, Amy will be a pirate and wear pirate clothes. We pretend to be different kinds of people every week. Tahirih will get Amy a different costume every week. This will be fun.
A quick social story like this helps us avoid many a meltdown but even more importantly, it helps Amy learn that she can pretend many different characters--thus using pretend play to explore the social world around her and explore facets of her own character.
Now, if only someone would write me a social story, I too might buy some new clothing that is different from what I have worn for years and like my brother-in-law, I could have some identity choices.
A visual support is anything that a child can see that helps the child understand what he or she is expected to do. We all use visual supports all the time--from lists, to street signs, to electronic organizers but creating and using visual information to supplement verbal information is very helpful to children with ASD.
A Social Story is a visual support strategy created by a speech pathologist named Carol Grey where a child is given a short simple story to explain the social dynamics of a situation and giving the child guidance about what would be appropriate social behavior.
Here is a video clip of a simple visual support being used. This visual support is called a First/Then card. Two pictures are lined up, and the child is shown which activity will be done first and which activity will be done second: First/Then