Play…it’s what kids do. Right? Except that M never did. She would sometimes copy other kids, do what they were doing, so at daycare it looked like play. Outdoors she was in her element with all of the gross motor activities: running, jumping, climbing, swinging, spinning, she never got tired of any of it. A day spent outdoors was a good day for M. We bought her lots of different kinds of toys. Toys that matched with her obsession (fire trucks), toys they had at daycare, interactive electronic toys, a play kitchen, you name it. We tried everything, and M still never played with any of it. She did not interact with toys at all. While concerning that M was terrified of interacting with people, it was even more concerning to me that she did not interact with toys, she did not play.
Of course, as with so many other things with parenting special kids, I tried again and again to find out what the problem was and how I could help her…and no one would listen to me. I talked to her doctor at the time, teachers, other parents, and the social worker and team we worked with to get her an IEP. I always got one of two responses “of course she plays with something” or “I’m sure it’s normal”.
When M was almost 4 I took her for an OT evaluation at a therapy center for children (the IEP team agreed she needed OT and some other help, but she didn’t meet the criteria to get it through an IEP because she didn’t have severe enough speech problems…they can not qualify for OT alone.) The first thing the therapist evaluating M did was ask what she likes to play with. M would not speak to her, would only sit on the floor and fuss. So the therapist asked me what M likes to play with. And…I lied. I didn’t want to say again that she does not play with ANYTHING and again hear that I didn’t know what I was talking about. So I said cars and trains. It was kind of close to the truth, M liked to look at cars and trains, watch videos about them…I had bought her a number of Thomas cars and a track hoping to get her to play, with no luck. So the OT got M some cars and set them in front of her and told her to go ahead and play with them. M looked at them. She picked one up. And that was it. The therapist again asked M to show her how she plays with the cars. M became irritated and started to yell. The therapist picked up a car and drove it around and asked M to play with her. M got angry and threw the cars across the room, yelling and crying. And that was as far as we got into what I was told would be about a 2 hour evaluation.
I was so relieved that not only did someone else finally see what I saw, and believed me, but she had a NAME for it! Dyspraxia, she called it. A motor planning problem. M’s brain could not plan out what to do with a toy, how to play with it. She loved gross motor activities because it was something simple she could repeat over and over. This is why M had a meltdown when someone wanted to make up a game…she could not process how to play it. It was also why at 4 years of age M was almost completely unable to dress herself, unable to pedal even a small tricycle.
This is one area where OT helped M immensely. After 6 months she could almost completely dress herself. She started to pedal a bicycle…she could not ride nearly as well as her peers, but she could ride! (And of course now she is on 2 wheels!) Around this 6 month mark was also one particular event that was one of the happiest days I can remember. M spontaneously went into her room, put on a “dress up” cat tail and crawled into the kitchen meowing like a cat! This lasted maybe 2 minutes, but it was the first time M had EVER used imaginative play! It was such a relief to see her happy, carefree, having fun, playing and using her imagination if only for a couple of minutes.
M still rarely plays with toys. She prefers board games and card games where there are specific, predictable rules. She is very upset if she is playing with someone and they try to use different rules from the ones she uses. She also can get very upset if she loses, but she still comes back to play over and over. But I now would not say that M does not play at all or have any imagination. She is a very concrete, black and white thinker which is extremely common in autism, but she does occasionally play creatively with A, who loves to play things like Mommies, Going on a trip, Daycare and Doctor. She will sometimes pretend the pop up play house is a bathtub, or pretend to be a firefighter putting out a fire in our house, or play school with K. And this is ok with me. I don’t want to change who she is, she doesn’t need to be more playful or imaginative, she is wonderful the way she is. But the ability to play and use imagination at times is very important and will really help her as she grows and learns more in school. It is a challenge to buy her gifts for birthdays and Christmas. There are only so many Taylor Swift items or pairs of cowboy boots one girl can have, and it is still pointless to buy her toys. And although I mostly stay away from toys and buy more games or practical items I am still a mom, and ever hopeful that I will find that ONE perfect thing she will play with and love, and so I continue to buy her a toy here and there in the chance that she might love it and play with it. And you know what? That’s ok too. 🙂