Asperger Syndrome and “Little Kids”
Play as a Strategy for Interaction and Coping

By Teresa Bolick, Ph.D.

Young children with Asperger Syndrome have many skills that bode well for success. They often do well with the routines of preschool, kindergarten, and primary grades. They are among the first to learn the days of the week, date, weather information, and letter sounds. Children with AS keep the teacher “on track” with the daily schedule and with whose turn it is to be snack helper.

On the playground, though, these children don’t know how to enter the games of their classmates. They may “walk the perimeter” or talk with the adults about their current “special interest.” Back in the classroom, they may “melt down” if the tape recorder malfunctions or the expected computer class is changed to an assembly about fire safety. If they do make it through the school day unscathed, they can fall apart the minute they walk in the front door of their home. In other words, despite their significant strengths in other areas, young children with AS struggle with social interaction and emotional/behavioral control. And one factor in their struggles is that many young children don’t know how to play.

Play is the universal language of childhood. It allows the child to establish joint attention and reciprocal interactions with others. Preschoolers in the fast food playground invite each other to play with eye gaze and body language, not with their words. A kindergartner in the sandbox drives a truck closer to another child to communicate without words, “Wanna build a road?” Children who don’t know how to play lack this language for connecting with others.

Play is also essential to problem solving. When the block tower falls down, the budding engineer can experiment with how to build a stronger foundation or seek ideas from a peer. When Maggie and Jane both want to be the teacher, negotiation skills allow them to find a resolution. Children who learn to mobilize their own resources (including each other) are more likely to transfer these skills into academic and interpersonal problem solving in real life.

Play allows children to connect feelings and thoughts with events and to develop cause and effect thinking for emotions. Consider a play scenario in which five-year-old Allie and her friend are playing “DW and teacher.” DW keeps hitting toys and games, and her teacher keeps sending DW to time out. After several such trips, the teacher asks DW why she keeps hitting. DW (Allie) thinks for a moment and says, “I’m MAD.” The teacher (Allie’s friend) shakes her finger at DW and says, “DW, you know the rule: Use your words.” Both girls are learning that talking about feelings can lead to help, while hitting leads to punishment.

Mastery of the connections among events, thoughts, and feelings allows children to build coping skills. They learn that they can retreat to a world of Legos or action figures when they feel overwhelmed. At a slightly more sophisticated level, they learn that they can play out fear, sadness, anger, and the like with toys without risking the consequences of such actions in “real life.” Play enactments often allow the child to see a situation from a different perspective and to develop new approaches to their distress. Most importantly, though, play allows children to cope in the way that many adults do—by doing something enjoyable!

My mental framework of play evolved from years of doing play therapy, the work of Greenspan and Wieder, and my own experiences as a mother, neighbor, and friend. Your framework will probably include ideas from a variety of sources as well. This is an area where picking and choosing what works for your child, your family, and you is the only way to go! To get you started, I’ll share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years.

  • Establish joint attention with your child. ("Joint attention" refers to the understanding that both individuals are paying attention to each other and/or to the same object.) If your child prefers solitary activities, you may have to “just watch” initially. Then you can venture a comment or two—“My, that red marker is really bright!” or “You’re lining those cars up so neatly.” Don’t be discouraged if the child’s first response is to turn away from you. Stay put, and try another comment in a minute or so.
  • If your child makes little response, try playing in parallel and commenting about what you’re doing. If she’s writing numerals on paper, you can do the same (only messier). Then comment, “Oops, mine are crooked. They’re not as straight as yours.” Some parents even make inaccurate statements about what they’re doing, knowing that their child can be counted on to correct them (and thus interact).
  • Help your child engage in two-way (reciprocal) communication during play, even if you have to be a little absurd. I managed to engage three-year-old Sally by finding a red magnetic “A” to approach her precious blue “B” (that she carried everywhere). My “A” hopped over to be close to the “B.” When Sally and her “B” turned away, I waited. After a quiet moment, the “A” (and I) began an “A is for _____” chant. Sally started to notice, but she wasn’t ready to interact. Then “A” began to make mistakes (“A is for xylophone”). “No!” squealed Sally gleefully. “X is for xylophone!” My “A” remained confused—“A is for zebra.” “Silly A,” said Sally. “Z is for zebra.” Sally then started her own absurdities, inviting me nonverbally to continue the game. By entering her favorite world of letters, I helped Sally know that she did have a way of interacting and that it could be great fun.

Dr. Bolick continues with 10 more lessons about engaging your child in play. Order your copy of the July-August issue now to read this, and other helpful articles on autism/AS.

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