At one and a half, Simon loved to play with alphabet blocks. He never stacked, chewed, or bashed them, as kids typically do, instead, he pointed, over and over, to each letter and asked “is it?” All he wanted was to know the name of each letter. At one and two, he loved his cars and trucks, but not to drive. He turned them over and stared as he spun the wheels. As he got older, he also put them in lines. All over the house.
Eventually, over a year “late,” developmentally, he used cars to drive and rarely spun their wheels. He did love to lay his head on the floor and watch the wheels of his trains as he drove them, but he was driving them. It’s also about this age, 3 or so, when most kids start to move from parallel play to interactive play with peers, and most of them are pretty adept at pretending. My son held his hand up to ward kids off, ran away, or screamed if they tried to talk to him. He would shout or throw a toy when an adult tried to pretend with him, or sometimes start to cry.
His difficulty with age appropriate play and his sensory issues were evaluated by a developmental team, and they recommend we send him to OT for his sensory and motor planning delays. For social and emotional, they recommended going to preschool. We couldn’t find a preschool that would take him, with his special needs and in diapers, and that we could afford, so school was out. It was recommended we take him to Play Therapy. Some googling taught us that Play Therapy is a very deliberate, regular time where kids are brought together and taught how to play together, how to pretend, and how to have a conversation with each other. It sounded perfect for him, but would be billed to insurance as speech therapy, something Simon didn’t qualify for with his above average verbal scores. No insurance coverage, no Play Therapy.
To help the best we could, we took him to parks, to the indoor gym, and eventually to Swap and Play, a community sharing and play space in our neighborhood, just to be sure he was near other kids on a regular basis. He may not interact with them, but at least he’d be exposed to them. An evaluation with the public school early intervention team earned him eligibility for services as “moderately autistic” in the public school system. What this meant for us, a family unable to find a preschool and Simon turning four, was a weekly visit from an early intervention teacher. Though he isn’t clinically on the spectrum, this service helped him get to the biggest social development he’s had so far.
After a few weeks of getting to know each other and for teacher Mark to figure out what Simon needs, he started meeting us at Swap and Play to start teaching him how to pretend and how to play with kids. Being an adult that wasn’t a parent, Mark had special sway with Simon. As he slowly pretended more with cars and trains, Simon slowly got more used to it. As Mark led Simon and a swap friend in silly “boo parades,” he slowly got accustomed to other kids doing the same thing he was doing. Because it was Mark, it was okay. Mark and Simon played hide and seek with a friend. Mark and Simon played trains near a friend. Mark helped Simon ask for a toy he wanted, and taught him how to introduce himself and get a friends attention.
Now, at four and a half, with his swap and play therapy, lots of time with various kids, and getting older, he can ask a friend to play hide and seek, or other basic kid things. And they play. Together. Today at swap and play, while mastering a new trike riding skill, he got a friends attention, asked what they were playing, and watched them for a minute. What they were playing was too scary for him, so he didn’t join in. But he was interested and successfully started talking to them, and that is a wonderful success. He’s madly in love with his trains and cars, and after years of never naming a stuffed animal or toy, he’s chosen names for every single piece of his collection, he remembers them all, calls them by name, and, most amazing of all, he pretends with them. Diesel 10 talks to Charlotte about being busy at the dock yard, and the car Lucy talks to Benedict about driving fast. They do work, they get in accidents, and they help each other back on the tracks. It’s still based on stories from books and TVs, but it’s no longer a recitation of those scripts.
He still wails when you try to make one train mean to the other to practice his problem solving, and he did shout, very loudly, at the kids at Swap to shut up when their play involved running from a dangerous storm, but he’s made amazing progress, and as he starts Head Start and has help there from his dear friend and play therapist Mark, I expect we’ll eventually see Simon handle a pretend storm calmly, or maybe someday, dream one up himself.