At the same time I've witnessed Ethan at other places, where the change in environment and lack of many available toys means lots of fiddling with cords, light switches, and air conditioner on/off buttons.
This gets me thinking again about expectations and play. I've written about this before because it seems to be a common theme with us. Every individual autism seems to have a few themes that define that particular autism, that come up again and again. For us, a big one is play, and by that I mean pretend play, creative play, social play and independent play.
After two and a half years now of learning more about play than I ever thought possible, I've discovered so much is related to the connection between 1) the child's environment on any given day 2) the type of toy and 3) the child's current developmental level of play.
Kids will obviously be at their highest comfort level in the familiar surroundings of home with the usual toys at their disposal. Kids who have trouble playing and knowing how to play need a play partner when possible. This is the time to introduce play schemes; how to appropriately play with a toy; ideas about how to use toys in creative ways.
Kids will be at their highest developmental level of play in those familiar surroundings and with a play partner (for a fascinating look at play stages, by the way, check out the Westby play scale.). So for example, when I play along with Ethan, he can play at about a four-year-old level. Yet if I leave him to play on his own, he's closer to a two or three-year-old typical child. And if we're in an unfamiliar environment, the ability to play further diminishes. There are too many outside stressors and distractions.
What does that mean in terms of the types of toys our kids play with? How do we encourage old-fashioned, unplugged, and sometimes independent play? (I mention this knowing some kids with autism only want to play alone, with a few select items. In the past Ethan has preferred to play with someone or not at all.) When do we push our kids and when do we give them a break? The way I see it:
Different toys require different sets of play expectations, and different settings require different sets of play expectations. Preferred toys (which in Ethan's case are electronic; the ones that don't require much thought) are best given 1) as a reward 2) for those times we really need to get something done and can't focus on what he's doing and 3) as a comfort and stress-reliever in different or unfamiliar places. We've learned to introduce more creative, open-ended toys first with a play partner, who can demonstrate ways to use them and show how they might be fun and interesting.
If I'm playing with Ethan, I'm going to push the boundaries a little bit. I'm there to help him recover if he gets frustrated, so I'm going to up the ante, introduce an idea that's a little different, throw up an obstacle, introduce a creative idea. If I'm asking him to play independently, there's a different set of expectations. In addition to the standard electronic stuff, we have what I'm going to call "safe toys." What's a safe toy? It's something a little more creative than electronics but a little less stressful than a completely open-ended toy, like cars or trains or little superhero firgurines. To encourage Ethan to play on his own without having the usual crutch of something with a screen, we started with some of Ethan's favorite, safe, open-ended toy and expecting him to play with them alone in only small increments; say, five minutes. For us, Ethan's safe toys are things like books, puzzles, stringing beads, Light Bright, the Perfection game, and his toy piano, to name a few .
The goal is to help kids learn to want to explore and be curious with toys, and not always have to have someone playing with them. The moment I see Ethan's okay playing on his own, I step back. At the same time, one thing we have to be aware of with autism is that kids tend to lose interest very quickly and also get frustrated very quickly. This is why, while I encourage independence, if Ethan takes out a brand new or unfamiliar toy, if at all possible, I zip over there to help him out before he has a discouraging experience and decides he doesn't want to go through that again. Ever.
Case in point: this morning Ethan wanted to play with the potato heads. If he'd been playing with them for awhile, I would have identified this as a perfect "safe toy" activity and urged him to play on his own. However, in the past Ethan has gotten extremely frustrated with not being able to push the pieces in hard enough and having them all fall out. He literally wanted nothing to do with Mr. Potato Head for two years. This morning was an opportunity I didn't want to miss, so we sat down and played together. Of course, this is life, and that's not always possible, but it's good to keep in mind as a general guideline. Right now he's playing with play-doh on his own. By himself he repeats the same thing over and over. If we were to sit down and play together, I'd make the experience more creative. But that fact that he'll use it on his own for awhile makes play-doh, at the very least, a safe toy option. The more of these we can have, the better our sanity as caregivers, and the more possibilities our kids have to expand their play repertoire.
Ethan may play like a 4-year-old with me, a 3-year-old on his own, and a 2-year-old somewhere else. Why? Comfort level. A child who has trouble generating ideas naturally is more stressed and aimless when left alone to play with toys. When a child with autism visits a house with, for example, few toys that are familiar or few toys at all, his world is rocked. As it is, just taking in the new location, with its different sights, sounds, smells and textures, can be overwhelming. Ethan will wonder why certain fans are making certain humming sounds, or why the kitchen smells different, or why the light switches aren't the same. Sensory overload and social anxiety means we need different expectations. These are the places to pull out the computers and electronics. Comforting, fun, familiar objects can provide a welcome relief from stress just when they need it.
I write all of this not as an expert or as someone who has this all figured out, but as a constant thinker and analyzer who has seen some progress and wanted to share in case anything here helps someone else. This is our situation, and our story, and I'll be the first to acknowledge that every child is an individual. But sometimes there are common themes, and sometimes those common themes have common solutions.