So what is pretend play anyway? And would I know it if I saw it? One of the deficit areas identified as a trait of autism is the lack of imaginative play. But for kids who are mostly non-verbal, like my Oliver, how do we know what is going on in their minds and that it doesn't qualify as "imaginative"? Since he can't tell us what he is thinking we watch his actions and draw conclusions. My conclusions sometimes differ from those of the others and I am only just learning to trust my intuition (and my own eyes!). But in the past, conversations with his lead therapist (whom I have grown to trust a lot) went something like me describing an action of Oliver's and then posing the question: "So, does that qualify as pretend play?" or "Does that count as an initiation?"
Oliver loves Thomas the Train -- or any train, really -- but with the TtT franchise and parents and grandparents who are willing to fork over, say, $19.99 for a train because finally there is something that captures his interest, he tends to have a lot of these items: books, videos and a growing collection of trains. Thomas videos are responsible for a lot of the repeated speech that we hear around the house. He doesn't repeat the narrative that George Carlin provides but his own spontaneous narrative that emerged the first few times he watched the videos and now repeats even when the video isn't on. But there is another thing that I have noticed lately that has me intrigued. Oliver will act out scenes from his favorite videos -- which right now happen to be TtT and Frosty the Snowman. Using play doh and his toy trains Oliver will stage scenes from the TtT video. Likewise he will use an old hat when he is reinacting scenes from Frosty. I haven't yet asked the therapist about it and I don't think I will. Okay, so it is scripted and repetitive, but still. He is using everyday items to represent the pictures that are captured by his mind and that symbolic thinking has got to be at least a building block for the imagination, wouldn't you say?
After coming to understand the playdoh dynamic I have been carefully observing Oliver for other signs of imaginative play and the conclusion I have come to is that it is impossible for me to know what is going on in that little mind of his. Just because he doesn't often play with toys in the same manner that other kids do does not mean that he doesn't have a rich imaginative life playing out in his head. (And even if he doesn't -- so what? I work with plenty of people who don't have an ounce of imagination!) I know that we all use lables and categories and types to understand our experiences, to navigate through life, and to communicate and share these things with others. But I suppose I am only starting to understand that these categories are fluid, dynamic, shifting and contextual. And most of all that they are created by people who have an imperfect understanding of the complexities that they are describing.
I was looking for a picture to add to this because I haven't posted one in awhile and I came across a series of photos that I took this fall when we went to a corn maze. Oliver loved the makeshift "drums" and it took me about 15 minutes to realize that he was acting out a scene from a bert and ernie video where ernie keeps bert awake by playing the drums. We tried to get him interested in some other activities but the last photo shows tells you how successful we were.