|"I'm an ant!"||
12 November 2001
|When I was a kid, the space under my fathers huge oak desk was a magical cave. The acre of tall wavy grasses behind our country house, judiciously flattened, was a maze of tunnels and hideaways. The pull cord on a window shade became a Tarzan-like rope to swing into the treetop squirrels nest heretofore known as a bed. And oh, the villages populated by my china animals on the cowskin rug. Those animals were as ruthless and conniving as any denizen of a nighttime soap, as cruel as a group of sixth graders.
You dont have to teach a child how to imagine the world upside down and sideways: most just do. Unless theyre on the autistic spectrum, that is. Unless their emotional development has gone off course because of some other neurological tics and hiccups. Then you do.
Pretend play teaches symbolic thinking, and symbolic thinking is the root of just about everything. A transaction at the bank wont make sense unless you understand that this symbol I hold in my hand is called a check and that sheaf of symbols you give back to me are called twenty dollar bills, and theyre really both stand-ins for the weight of a gold coin, which in turn is a stand-in for a unit of barter.
And thats just a single moment in the day, a single exchange of paper. Symbolic thinking is everywhere, and if you dont understand how to think that way, youre screwed. A story I tell wont make sense to you if you dont understand the concept of make-believe. Sarcasm wont make sense if you dont know to read between the lines and not take the words literally.
It goes further: you wont know how to make as small a choice as what shirt to wear if you cant realize, "I like the muted red better today because its the color of the sky before a storm and Im feeling moody" or as huge a choice as whether you want to spend the rest of your life with someone if you cant imagine what that life will be when you add new jobs, children, old age...
Symbolic thinking is key.
Weve been working to develop Damians symbolic thinking via pretend play since we first learned he might be on the spectrum, since we first read Greenspan & Weider's book, which gave us the insights we needed to help him. Weve pretended he was a bear in a cave, weve knocked down towers together, weve crawled like kitty cats across the living room floor. (I meowed, he meowed. I said, "Where does Dante like to go?" Damian crawled to the back door and stood up, pretending to scratch.) Weve taken curved hair clips and turned them into hungry monsters, weve lain on the bed and called ourselves mountains for him to climb, weve pretended food on a fork was a rocket ship headed for the moon. Weve animated and voiced countless plastic insects, Fisher Price Little People, and zoo animals taking turns, going on adventures, and even throwing tantrums. And thats just us. His six (can you believe it?) floor time therapists do the same thing, to one degree or another. Hes certainly getting enough practice pretending.
Its starting to pay off.
At first, he mostly mimicked real life. Plastic food was for eating. Scissors were for cutting hair the way he remembered Hugh snip his hair. For a while after we saw workers felling a tree in front of our house, everything Damian touched magically transformed into a power tool. He must have cut down several hundred trees those few months (usually the carpeted cat tree in the dining room). But lately were seeing evidence of his brain taking the next step into true pretend play. These small steps mean so much when you know what youre seeing.
A few scenes from the weekend:
On Saturday, we went to Kidspace, a childrens museum in Pasadena. Damian didnt seem to absorb much there: the place was crowded and noisy. He withdrew, not even trying things he normally likes. But he enjoyed the bat exhibit, talking a mile a minute about the flying bats and hanging bats and just plain bats. Dan helped him dangle from a rod and commented that Damian was now a bat too. And Damian crawled through a tunnel painted like the inside of an anthill, with sand and fellow ants peering out of painted tunnels.
Damian took the idea and ran -- or rather crawled -- with it. Sunday morning, he got down on hands and knees and crept the length of our hallway. "Im an ant in an anthill!"
He ran into our bedroom, where I was luxuriating in the stolen pleasure of a morning sleeping in, climbed onto the bed, lay on top of me, and rolled off along the bed. "Im rolling on Mommy! Im a steamroller!"
After breakfast, he draped himself over Dans kneeling chair. "Im a bat!"
I guess the duck was hungry too.
copyright 2001 Tamar