Thursday, April 16, 2009

It is Just Pretend, Right?

I was playing Cranium Cariboo with a five year old child who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder and with his little sister, Amy. Actually, I was helping them play with each other but I had to stay very involved to keep them taking turns and enjoying the game. Amy is three and her brother is five. I might have been the one to learn the most from the game, though. Amy was my teacher.

Cranium Cariboo is a favorite game of mine because it has several of the best game elements ever, but I still need to modify the game somewhat to make it useful for my young friends with ASD. The game provides a little purple key that opens any of the 15 doors. First two great game elements: keys and doors. Behind each of the doors may or may not be a bright colored ball. Two more great game elements: Balls and a little bit of uncertainty. As the child finds each hidden ball behind a door, he or she puts the ball into a chute via a hole and when all the balls are collected and crammed into the chute, a treasure box opens to reveal a shiny jewel. Three more great game elements: Collecting several bright objects, putting things into a hole, and a treasure box. This game is nearly perfect with so many delightful elements but children with ASD may still find it hard to persist and stay calm enough to play the game because of the element of uncertainty. Sometimes a ball is behind a door and sometimes nothing is behind a door.

The uncertainty element, minimal though it is, can be so overwhelming that I need to support children who have autism so that they can get through this part. If I don't help (and even if I do) my young friends often cheat, leaning down to peek in the doors and see where balls are located. They don't know the social concept of cheating, of course, and it really does not apply when children are this age but sometimes a parent gets upset when a child peeks. So, I need to support parents, too, to get them through this part since they don't know what high level concept cheating is or how many prerequisite skills a child needs to understand first. The truth is, I think peeking is a good strategy if the child feels distressed, just as I feel that it is OK for me to skip to the end of a literary thriller if I get too overwhelmed with the tension while reading a book. Unfortunately, it ruins the book for me if I read the ending and I think it ruins the game, emotionally, for the child to peek and find the balls, so I try to avoid the peeking/cheating issue altogether and provide another strategy to help my young friends deal with the disappointment of not finding a ball behind every door. I used a "dealing with disappointment" strategy to help Amy's brother, and it worked but the educational part for me was how Amy responded.

My "dealing with disappointment strategy" was inspired by Dr. Stanley Greenspan, who suggests that adults should use pretend play solutions to solve real problems--with the real problem, in this case, being that a child can feel upset to find no ball. I distract the child from the potential discomfort by pretending that finding no ball is a HUGE catastrophe to me. I pretend to get very upset and say something like, Oh No! This is sad news! NO BALL! Both Amy and her brother were riveted by this bit of theatrics. (I love it that I can be an Oscar award worthy actress when playing with children.)

My theatrics were entertaining enough that finding a ball or not finding a ball were equally rewarding for Amy's brother but my exaggerated expressions were a little too convincing for Amy. She turned with a look of distress on her face to ask her mom if everything was really OK. Tahirih is just pretending sad, right? she said, looking as though she were ready to start crying. Mom assured Amy that I was, indeed, Just Pretending. Amy calmed down right away with her mom's assurances. She took the key to look for a ball and fervently commented, I just love this game. This process of regulating her emotional state with pretend play was so interesting to Amy that she checked everytime with mom to see if I was just pretending and every time she commented on how much she loved the game.

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