Communicating Partners, Winter 1996 Newsletter

Letter from Barbara
     Once upon a time there was a young boy about two or three years old who lived in a house filled with wonderful toys. He should have been thrilled with all his toys -- his brothers had loved them at his age. There were all sorts of vehicles -- cars, trucks, tractors, a school bus, fire engines, police cars, dump trucks, bulldozers, and cement mixers. He had blocks, Legos of all sizes and Lincoln Logs for constructing anything a boy could imagine.
     There was an entire Fisher Price village with house, barn, school, hospital, parking garage, airport, Little People and animals. Included in all these toys were miniature military men with their tanks, jeeps, battleships, and even a Stealth bomber; pirates and pirate ships; spacemen and rockets; cowboys and Indians; and construction men with their heavy equipment machinery.
     He had books, tapes of children's stories and songs, coloring books and crayons, Play Doh with its accessories, and many other toys collected and handed down by his brothers.
     For most young children, these toys provided hours filled with fun and fantasy, but for this boy, confusion and chaos. His mother wanted him to enjoy playing with the toys and tried to teach him how, but most of the time he just watched. If she left him in his room to play alone, he usually threw the smallest toys all around while laughing to himself. Oftentimes she would see him lying on the floor stroking an object with his chubby little fingers. He never played with the toys as his older brothers had played.
     Naturally, his mother was upset and worried about him. She didn't know what to do when he acted like this. One teacher she asked just laughed and said, "Oh, he'll outgrow it." She read books that talked about "self-stimulation" but didn't offer much advice except to say "these children do that."
     Then she found information about the social and communication development of children with delays and our story changes.
     She learned that children with delays must spend more time playing with people, and less time playing alone, or they can become lonely, "isolated" children who live in their "own world." This mother realized that all those wonderful toys were overstimulating to him. He couldn't play and enjoy them like other little boys because he wasn't developmentally ready for them and he wasn't seeing other people showing him how. And so, she learned how to "get into his world" and play like he played.
     Of course this is my story. In my mind I can still picture my son throwing the Little People and Legos around the room, and I can still hear his strange laughter.
     As I learned about social and communication development, I began to see the things I needed to change before he would change. One of the first things I did was put most of the toys in the basement. My frustration and fear went down to the basement also, so to speak. I no longer told him, "Go play with your toys," but invited him to "Come play with me."
     I also changed my expectations. I learned to watch him more closely to see what he could do and what he liked to do, and didn't insist he play how I thought he should play. I learned to create simple interactive games of his activities.
     Often I imitated his actions, sounds, and words and he soon began to copy mine. I used his love of throwing things and made a game of it that we could play together. I set several paper cups on a low table and we took turns throwing a small, soft ball at them. When he knocked the cups over, I would set them up again. When I hit the cups, he would hand me the ball and set the cups back up. A simple game, but he enjoyed it greatly. I enjoyed his company and excitement!
     I said easy things he could say like "missed, too bad," "try again," "one cup down," "two cups down," "my turn," "your turn," and "good throw!" We added variety to the game by including his stuffed friend, Barnie. Barnie would "throw" the ball and "say" something like "yes!" or "yippie!"
     Over the years I have stopped expecting him to play in ways he isn't ready for, but notice the small changes with joy. I try to play with him often when he isn't in school or out with his brothers and the neighborhood kids, and I try to include him in whatever I am doing as much as possible. He likes to help with the shopping, cooking, housework, and yardwork although he sometimes tells me (just like his brothers), "Wait a minute...I'm busy."
     Most importantly we enjoy each other much more now...and after all, isn't that what mothers and children are supposed to do?
Barbara Mitchell

[Editors] Note: Barbara's son, Mark, has Down Syndrome but, as you see, showed many patterns we think of as autistic.
  Revised: February 22, 1998.