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The Importance of Pretend Play for Children with Autism and Other Special Needs


Imaginative play may be elusive for the youngest autistic children, but it has an important place in your child's life.

little boy dressed as superhero

Like many other kids on the autism spectrum, my son Brooks never developed imaginative play naturally.

Since my husband and I are both writers, this was a particularly devastating part of our son's diagnosis. He might grow up into someone who never recognizes the intrinsic value of a good story. On top of that, we knew that the kind of symbolic play that eluded Brooks was a major social-emotional milestone, and that without it, his social connection to the rest of the world would be compromised.

When our therapists patiently explained to us that these skills could be taught, I was a huge skeptic. I mean, I understood that you could teach Brooks to play with his teddy bear. Step by step, you could show him how to hug the bear, give the bear a turn in a game, but it never sat well with me that he didn't have a natural inclination to want to play with the bear. And without that, I worried that his imaginative play would always be robotic and "learned."

Our therapists continued to impress upon me that it wasn't true that Brooks lacked a natural inclination. His imagination was simply stalled and had to be kick-started, just like his speech and all his other delays. Although I was still plenty worried, I tried to be positive. And sure enough, baby step by baby step, Brooks began to play.

When he was a toddler, I remember watching him with tears in my eyes when for the first time, on his own and without any prompting, he took a toy car and zoomed it across the floor. It was then that a tiny part of me stopped worrying, and throughout the years, many similar incidents have transformed me into someone who no longer worries that her autistic son will lack a healthy imagination. There's now simply too much evidence to the contrary.



Over the summer, Brooks busied himself during a long car ride by making pretend cell phone calls to a few superheroes. Here's the transcript (transcribed verbatim from iPhone audio!):

"Hello, Superman. What are you doing today? You're going to a royal ball show? Wow! Sounds like fun. But is it going to be a long show, a short show, or a medium show? Long show. Okay. And what else are you doing? You're going to...a Superman festival? Where other Supermans live? Which kind of apartment are you living in now? Where are all the Supermans living? In the apartment with the butterflies. Oh. Yeah. That sounds like fun. But, are you taking care of them? Or are you chasing them? Okay, chasing them. And what else are you doing? You're sitting on the grass? Okay. Are you sitting on the grass with a blanket, or with a curtain, or with a pillow? Or are you sleeping today? Oh, you're sleeping today. Okay. Umm, Superman, I'll call you later. Okay, I love you. Okay bye."

 

Marni Goltsman, web producer at the Paley Center for Media and blogger at Insideschools.org, is currently writing a full-length play based on her experiences with autism.

 

 

Also see: How to Help Children with Special Needs Develop Imaginary Play

How to Tame the 'Worry Reflex'

How to Maintain Your Marriage While Caring for a Child with Special Needs

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Author: Marni Goltsman is a Manhattan writer and mom of a son who was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old. She founded the shopping site shopforcharitynow.com, which automatically donates to charity, and blogs about how her son's autism allows her family "to experience the world differently and...grow in unexpected ways" at capturingautism.com. Read more of Marni Goltsman's personal essays at nymetroparents.com/marni-goltsman. See More

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