Monday, January 23, 2006

Is it my imagination, or. ...?

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.


  1. Christine, I've wondered the same thing about Bud. When we were going through the whole diagnosis process I would talk about this scripted pretend play expecting the evaluators to me very impressed, and I'd get an "uh-huh," which I understood to mean "yeah, we see that all the time."

    But here's what I think about it. I posted a couple of months ago about how the evolution of Bud's drawing has mirrored the evolution of his speech in that when he moved from abtract blobs of color to representational art it was all "scripted" art (i.e., things he has seen Joe draw on Blues Clues that he draws exactly the same way as Joe.) I think that his pretend play has followed the same evolutionary track as well, in that his first "pretend" play was re-enacting the scenes from favorite videos.

    Here's the thing, though. I just read some great articles on echolalia (one was link that Sal at Octoberbabies posted and the others were from issues of Autism-Aspergers Digest Magazine that I backordered.) The gyst of the articles was that echolalia (or what they call "gestalt language acquisition") is a great prognostic indicator of future language development. The process that it typically follows is: 1) echolalia - use of memorized phrases in their entirety; 2) "mitigated" echolalia - or, chunks of remembered phrases strung together in different order, or with some words switched out to fit the current situation; 3) isolation of single words and morphemes (phrases that the child thinks of as a single "word" or concept, like "all done") and beginning of use of original two-word phrases; 4) generation of more complex sentences. The articles said that when the child progresses into stage 3, it can sometimes look like regression because when he was using memorized phrases they were all gramattically correct, and then suddenly he starts saying things like "Daddy go car now."

    My theory is that pretend play (and drawing) can follow the same evolutionary pattern, and that the "scripted" re-enactments can evolve into first very simple original "moments" of play, and then into more complex plots and storylines. This is *definitely* what I have seen with Bud.

    So, this is all my VERY long-winded way of saying that regardless of what the professionals say (and, actually, I have no idea what they say) I think the kind of play that you're seeing from Oliver is FANTASTIC and will be an important stepping stone for him. Whew. Sorry this was so long.

    P.S. We have re-enacted the Ernie & Bert drum scene at our house as well! :-)

  2. Andrew does this, what I consider, pretend play thing, but I am sure the experts would think other. He takes all the fisher price little people villages (like the garage, carnival, barn etc.) and puts them on top of the train table. He has no cars or people (doesn't want them) but kneels down looking in the windows and what not and has some verbal dialogue going on. I guess it is a script because I can make out some words once in a while like "glue clues" (his way of saying blue's clues). So, although it may not be a traditional and typical way of playing with these types of toys, in my eyes it is still playing or play emerging. I think we need to trust our instincts more often than to always consult the opinion of an expert. That is what I am learning anyway.

  3. Hi Christine,

    I think this is wonderful and yes, I see it as "imaginary play." When we look at kids play, we see that they enact first what they see in everyday life, so the question of imagination here is obvious. It's a wonderful start and you might want to think about how you can expand his current play one scene at a time so it doesn't turn into preservative "play." Just my two cents.

    As for imagination, as a curator and studying autism and art and those who write, I am seeing that imagination is a kind of representation, that I can tell so far. As far as I'm concerned, it's all wonderful. I love to write but I don't think I can (or will) ever author a Harry Potter book.

    Stay positive on these wonderful steps!!


  4. Ohhh, poor Oliver :o( Gabe gets that same face when we say no to him watching Nemo day after day. I think it is great that he is "scripting" parts to videos, etc. It is deffinitly imaginative!Is it on the high end of being extremely imaginative with his play? Probably not, but children's play grows and develops as they do. Some catch on quick while others feel the saftey that comes with reenacting things out instead of totally creating their own idea from scratch. Picking items out that represent the things that he is scripting, like a train, but maybe not a THomas the Train, sounds like he is branching out and is on his way!
    Hooray for Oliver!

    Take Care,

  5. Charlie did a lot of scripting of videos until he was about 6 and then switched, so to speak, to scripting scenes from his own life: Past experiences, some pleasant and some not. We have always thought his adaptations of Teletubbies or Barney scenes are indeed what they look like: Creative, imaginary play.

    As he has grown older, I have noted that Charlie's insistence on these scripts has grown more rigid, as has his insistence on not redirecting from the play when I have requested. He can turn anything into a script that has to be exhaustively re-enacted, such as cooking rice in a pot on the stove. And the resulting rigidity does not seem creative at all, but a trap he has got himself stuck in, and we have to show him how to live without that script always being so.

    Also, Charlie has gotten a bit sick of scripting I sometimes think but cannot stop doing it---that's when we need to intervene. We have just begun to use his "scripting stength" to teach him routines that can last him for the duration---household chores and routines--making a bed over and over the same way is a good thing. (Not all scripts are created equal.)