I was an only child. As a result, there was a lot of time that I would complain of boredom when friends were not available to play with. My complaints did not result in my mom providing me with entertainment. I made my own entertainment. I was forced to pretend.
I had an imaginary friend, Lindy. Dolls and stuffed animals engaged me in conversations. I drew pictures of faces and made believe they were my sisters and brothers. I made up jobs for them and places they lived. I created what was missing.
When I was pregnant, I imagined all the fun my child and I would have with dolls and playing house, sandboxes, tractors and dinosaurs. I dreamt of lazy summer afternoons, coloring at the outdoor table on the patio. No matter what we would do, I was sure we would have lots of fun.
The reality? None of that happens in my house. My son does not do pretend play. There has never been a time that he has grabbed his fire truck, pushed it toward an object and talked about putting out a fire. Instead, he will grab the fire truck, move its levers to watch the ladder move. He will push buttons to hear the sounds of the siren or backup warning beep (I hate that sound) and he will watch the lights, over and over again. The little firefighters that came with the truck have been tossed as irrelevant. They have never been played with. The poor little characters from Toy Story would never have had a movie if my kid was Andy.
I read a scholarly paper this morning called “Creativity and Imagination in Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome”. I am not a scholar, just a mom. The best I could make of it was that children on the spectrum may have the ability to imagine and create. They just do it a lot less and differently than NT children. This is because, neurologically, their brains are wired differently. Certain parts used to read faces and engage in pretend play are not active and cannot do things that are innate in neurotypicals around them.
For example, in the study, one of the experiments involved putting a couple parallel lines on a page of paper and telling the kids to create whatever they wanted to from the lines, label the creations and then talk about them until they could not think of anything else. From what I understood, the autistic children were trying to reach in their memories for things that resembled the shape they were seeing. For the line, the ASD kids might see a lamp-post. On the other hand, NT children knew they could pretend the line was anything such as a rocket ship, a knife, a walking stick or a house for thin people. They were able to create more and different objects than the ASD kids. They did not limit themselves to what existed in the real world while the ASD kids did.
The experimenters relate this imagination problem to the problem of impaired “theory of mind” or ToM which is supposed to be absent or impaired in children with ASD. The ToM is that, really each of us only knows what is in and on our own minds through introspection. We then generalize how we understand our own thoughts to what others must think and know. We do this, apparently, in certain designated parts of our brain. The way I understand it, it’s an innate social function each of us NTs have. We show this ToM by joint attention, by our use of language to communicate and by understanding each other’s actions and emotions.
As I read it in this paper, this theory of mind enables us to understand that mental states can be the cause of others’ behavior. Then we are also able to explain and predict behavior by others.
Apparently, this function to understand how others think and feel is impaired in my son. In therapy, right now, my son is learning to recognize the labels we attach to emotion. He is learning that a smile can indicate happy and tears can indicate sad. These are very early and simple signs. He is working on angry, frightened, and surprised and slowly, maybe differently, learning to read people by re-routing signals in his brain where the signals are not functioning as NTs do now. I’m no doctor or psychologist but that’s what I’m getting out of it.
I know that, through use of certain therapies, areas of the brain on MRI or PET scans have shown increased activity in brain function where there was no or little activity before therapy. This scientific explanation gives me hope that my son’s current understanding can improve.
So, having learned all this, I, the non-scientist and ever hopeful mom, recognize an importance in showing my son faces at a very fundamental level. Of helping him recognize emotions. To read people. To compensate for his disability by whatever means we can use to do so. And to keep on trying.
Last night, I asked if he wanted to play with the fire trucks. “Yes.” he answered. We got them out. I told him we needed a burning building because firemen go to fires and put them out to save people. (I don’t think he quite gets this part yet).
We used a toy police station he has with Sandy the Squirrel (yes, from Spongebob) inside. I told him, “The building is burning! Send the fire department!” He was busy moving the ladder of the fire truck, up and down, but put that aside to drive the truck to the building. I played with his fireman, making them talk as they rescued the squirrel from the building.
With my encouragement, he smiled and he “walked them” down the ladder together.
I used the fireman to ask the squirrel if she was hurt and had the squirrel answer yes. I asked my son what we should do. He said, “Go to doctor!” (Ya, ya, it’s supposed to be the hospital. I thought “doctor” was great – same idea, so I didn’t push it). I told him to get the ambulance. I told him to put the squirrel in the ambulance.
First, he threw the medic in the ambulance. “No,” I said, “The squirrel,” He took out the medic and put the squirrel in the ambulance. “Where are we going?” I asked. “To the doctor!” he answered. “Push the button!” he added. He pushed the button to start the siren on the ambulance. Then he stared at the lights on the top of the ambulance. I said “Push the ambulance so Sandy can get to the doctor!” He shoved it away.
My conclusion? We need more practice. I never figured that pretend play would be like homework for both of us. I hope he doesn’t have to call 9-1-1 for me anytime soon. Cuz if he does, I’m a goner…