"I'm an ant!"
12 November 2001
When I was a kid, the space under my father’s 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 squirrel’s 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 don’t have to teach a child how to imagine the world upside down and sideways: most just do. Unless they’re 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 won’t 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 they’re really both stand-ins for the weight of a gold coin, which in turn is a stand-in for a unit of barter.

And that’s just a single moment in the day, a single exchange of paper. Symbolic thinking is everywhere, and if you don’t understand how to think that way, you’re screwed. A story I tell won’t make sense to you if you don’t understand the concept of make-believe. Sarcasm won’t make sense if you don’t know to read between the lines and not take the words literally.

It goes further: you won’t know how to make as small a choice as what shirt to wear if you can’t realize, "I like the muted red better today because it’s the color of the sky before a storm and I’m feeling moody" or as huge a choice as whether you want to spend the rest of your life with someone if you can’t imagine what that life will be when you add new jobs, children, old age...

Symbolic thinking is key.

We’ve been working to develop Damian’s 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. We’ve pretended he was a bear in a cave, we’ve knocked down towers together, we’ve 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.) We’ve taken curved hair clips and turned them into hungry monsters, we’ve lain on the bed and called ourselves mountains for him to climb, we’ve pretended food on a fork was a rocket ship headed for the moon. We’ve animated and voiced countless plastic insects, Fisher Price Little People, and zoo animals taking turns, going on adventures, and even throwing tantrums. And that’s just us. His six (can you believe it?) floor time therapists do the same thing, to one degree or another. He’s certainly getting enough practice pretending.

It’s 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 we’re seeing evidence of his brain taking the next step into true pretend play. These small steps mean so much when you know what you’re seeing.

A few scenes from the weekend:

On Saturday, we went to Kidspace, a children’s museum in Pasadena. Damian didn’t 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. "I’m 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. "I’m rolling on Mommy! I’m a steamroller!"

After breakfast, he draped himself over Dan’s kneeling chair. "I’m a bat!"

He was processing what he’d learned, generalizing from the specific experience. Imaginative thinking begins like this. In small leaps of child logic. (And the steamroller idea was all his,with no specific precedent. )

After the museum on Saturday, we went out to an early dinner with Diane, Darin and their almost-two-year-old daughter Sophia. The food took forever. Sophia got antsy. Hell, I got antsy. But Damian? He was happily playing with the handful of toys I’d pulled from my bag: a tiny airplane, a dinosaur, a hair clip, a squishy green frog. The airplane raced along the table a/k/a runway and took off, flying into the sky. The dinosaur caught the plane and munched its tail, but then the plane took off again, escaping the dino’s clutches. At some point, the hair clip monster got hungry and devoured the dinosaur whole.

Damian came up with everything on his own. No prompting, no parental pushing or idea-making. Just Damian's ideas, Damian’s execution, parents’ deep satisfaction.

It's happening more and more, this original thinking. Yesterday we wandered through a mall, exploring the wilds of the Glendale Galeria, a suburban paradise (complete with an Apple Store -- whoa baby). We stopped at a tchotchka shop. While Dan checked out the goods, Damian and I knelt in front of a basket of toy fruit. We ate strawberries and nectarines and stroked fuzzy peaches. Then my attention wandered (okay, I spaced out) and Damian found a duck.

I guess the duck was hungry too.

Last night Damian took a bath. Once he got in the tub and blew a few bubbles with Daddy, he said, "I want the blue and red boat." Dan dug in the bath toy box and pulled out the boat, along with its two yellow-slickered fishermen. Damian put it in the water, then churned the water, exclaiming, "The boat is in a storm! The ocean is stormy! The water is higher and higher!" And, dipping the boat underwater, "The boat capsized!"

He was acting out a complete scenario. Of his own accord. From his own imagination. His mind is expanding, he’s learning to think creatively, to generalize and play-act and have fun. He’s learning how to be a normal kid.

This is such a kick, watching his brain grow, the truest pleasure I think I've ever known.

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copyright 2001 Tamar