Updated: Feb 11, 2019
Someone said the other day, "How can we be play and be
silly with her? She doesn't even know how to play!" What?! Would we ignore a baby who is just beginning to show interest in us? Would we not blow raspberries, play peek-a-boo, and tickle a baby to get a reaction? Do we just give up after maybe only trying once, assuming that the baby is not worth playing with because he doesn't yet "know how to play?" Appalling! I have "played" with kids on the autism spectrum, and other "spectrums," for over 15 years now. And not once have I restricted or felt unmotivated enough to withhold playfulness. Every child has some potential, some need, some intrinsic motivation for connecting playfully. It's in their smile, eye gaze, body language and unspoken expressions. It's our human, God given nature to want to interact with others; to feel connected; to feel loved. And it is my opinion and experience that interacting playfully is one of the best routes to getting those smiles.
Why is Play so important to me? It's the part of communication that opens the door to connection, in such a loving, joyful, and genuine manner. It's nonverbal, it's instinctual and it gives us the first taste of a relationship. By "play" I don't necessarily mean playing a board game or playing "house." Let's just start with playful interactions, much like those we find ourselves naturally initiating with babies. It's those moments you catch his attention, even just for a split second, when you smiled and covered your face; when you blew raspberries on his belly and got a short giggle. Those are the beginnings of connecting. It comes before spoken language, yet is so communicative and meaningful!
Let's think about what we know about Autism. These children have difficulty coordinating movements, processing information from their environment, and especially expressing themselves verbally. So, why are we trying to jump 10 steps ahead and teach them how to use gestures and greetings, give eye contact, and name a bunch of objects? How about starting with the relating and engaging playfully with us? How about we learn about their sensory profile, get down to their level of interests, and connect with them right where they are? What good is it, if a child can say "hello" stare unnaturally into your eyes, and say, "I want more juice please," but doesn't seem to laugh, smile, look into your eyes with intent, and experience joy? Where are the child-like silly moments? Where are the infectious laughter and smiles? What we have is a robotic representation of a child. Yes, he is able to ask for food and use greetings. Yes he may follow some of our social rules to avoid standing out too much. But have we really connected yet? Will he have interest in other kids? Will he be able to express an opinion about whether or not he likes a certain food? Will he ever tell a joke? Will he know what to do when another child comes up behind him and asks to play with him?
I'm not saying to stop teaching greetings and vocabulary, but I am saying to spend a little more time, or a lot more time, focusing on the natural development of the child's playful nature. For specific techniques, ideas, methods...check out my blog post: "Engaging the Inner Child in Play."
Let's change the way we interact with and support Autism and speech and language therapies. These children (and their families) are thirsting for relationships; deep, loving, playful ones! And as a parent, I know it's what we want most for all our children. Can we put the traditional speech-language goals on hold while we concentrate first on developing and strengthening prelinguistic and nonverbal communication through play? The other stuff will come naturally!