As special needs parents we often tend to forget, after a diagnosis, that the child is still a ‘kid’. Unconsciously, to some degree or as we learn more about the spectrum, we start to view our children as ‘patients’. It’s not intentional, it just happens. Like when an undesired behavior that’s been addressed and temporarily relieved in therapy suddenly resurfaces or when a new inappropriate behavior develops without an obvious cause. Anxiety makes us panic and we start to question the therapist or the therapy in general. Is it working? Are we doing enough? Is this the right approach? Do we need something more? In short, we start to doubt and when we have doubts we tend to put more pressure on our little ones. We forget the simple fact that the child is a developing human being. He/she has specific needs and wants and at some point he/she will develop a personality and eventually he/she will try to push boundaries. It’s our role to check and see if a behavior is a result of incompatible therapy or growing up and it’s our job to ease the transition.
Learning new skills, behaving appropriately and following a structure/schedule is well and good but these are children. They need to play. They have to play. Even adults need some down time when the pressure of life gets too high. If you keep pushing for results then chances are instead of moving forward, you’re going to burn out. It’s common sense and it’s the same with children. They need to get dirty, they need to explore and they need to go wild. They need time to be just ‘kids’.
Play is important to a child’s development. It helps them be aware of their surroundings and it helps develop their intellect through pretend and imagination. But not all children know how to ‘play’. You’d think it comes natural but no. My son, for example, needed to be taught how to play. Oh yes, he enjoys arranging his toy cars, lining them up and looking at them to make sure they’re perfectly in place. He likes to flip the pages of his storybooks just for the sensation of flipping them. Lego blocks are for spilling on the floor, to create noises and feeling the bumps on each block with his skin. He enjoys the swings mostly because it’s where he gets the most sensation. Before, my son wasn’t aware that he could do more with his toys or that his surroundings has things he could experience, discover and explore. In short, he didn’t know how to ‘play’.
I remember one Christmas when we gifted Cai play sets of cartoon characters that he enjoys watching. Tearing the gift wrappers seemed to have made him happy but after looking at the labels and pictures on the boxes he left them piled over the bed, unopened. He grabbed an empty water bottle and proceeded to play with that instead.
There was a time when no matter how much we tried to engage him in play he was more set on doing things his way. Back then we didn’t know the difference between tantrums and meltdowns so we allowed him to be engrossed on his world (our mistake).
It was frustrating. Being unable to connect to your child and see him exclude you from the things that seemed to make him happy. We knew there was a barrier, an invisible wall that was separating us from him. Yes, to some degree we could scale it, no problem. But there came a time when that wall was too high we couldn’t climb or see past through it. There was a time when all we could do was stare helplessly, wondering where we went wrong. As parents, it was discouraging. It was vexing and it was maddening!
As it turned out, all we needed was patience. It always boils down to that complex thing. Through our therapists and interventionists we learned that there are children, like our son, who needed to be taught how to play and enjoy it.
We had to be creative. We had to be prepared to fail and try again. We had to be insistent but not to the point where he’d feel distressed or overtaxed. We needed to learn how to enter his sphere without him feeling that we’re invading his personal space. It’s a confounding! We had to gauge our child’s reaction and act accordingly. The setting, our actions and his emotions had to be taken into consideration. It could be a daunting task especially when the odds are severely against you. But the thing is we never really lose it, that inner child in our souls and once we channel that we start to see things differently and we begin to understand what caused that invisible wall in the first place.
We could do activities all day and since Cai is aware of what a schedule or a structure is he wouldn’t mind as long as his attention is engaged on what we’re doing. We could learn a new set of skills or improve his behavior every second of every day to help him be ready for the mainstream. But those improvements are nothing compared to being included in his ‘trust circle’. Nothing beats knowing what makes him laugh or what he enjoys doing. Seeing him play in the rain, run barefoot on the grass and picking a leaf that catches his attention, it’s magical. Yes, seeing him learn how to write and color within the lines is exquisite but there’s nothing more addictive than that quirky feeling you get when your child takes your hand and introduces you to his world where instruction and rules are null and void. Curiously, that form of connection and inclusion could only be achieved through play.
Leveling with your child, trying to see the world as he sees it and bridging the gap in between is incomparable. Remembering and understanding that the child is a ‘kid’ who sometimes needs a playmate, not just mum or dad, is something we, as parents, need to learn.
I read a quote that states: “A child with autism is not ignoring you. They are waiting for you to enter their world.” And as I learn more about the spectrum and more about my son all I could say is… how true.