Learning to play,

the autistic way

23rd July 2019

Words by Charlotte Adorjan

It’s funny. Before you have kids you think you have a pretty good idea of what it will be like to hang out with them. You picture yourself playing all the same games that you loved as a child but with a mini-you, sitting crossed legged on the floor together making castles out of Lego and loo rolls. Or huddled together drawing at the table, taking it in turns to create sillier and sillier cartoons of Dad. Then thrashing them at boardgames that go on long in to the weekend nights. Absolutely, utterly, glorious.

You don’t imagine you’ll spend 80% of your time watching them crash small metal toy aeroplanes in to the dining table. Or shouting at them to play something, ANYTHING that involves you. In fact, the very last thing you think you’ll be doing is standing having a silent cry in the garden because you’re just so sad that your six year old won’t participate in any kind of game that any of the family can join in with and you just find the whole thing so bloody sodding unfair. As you stifle your sobs and pretend to water the shrubs you’re angry at yourself for getting jealous of all the other ‘normal’ families who seem to be playing together on insta that weekend, connecting with their children, creating wonderful (heavily filtered) memories. And cupcakes. And slightly-rubbish-but-frameable-artworks. And JIGSAW PUZZLES, even though you don’t even LIKE doing jigsaw puzzles, but STILL *Sob*

But that’s not what it’s like playing with Woody, our brilliantly bonkers son with high functioning autism/Aspergers. For children on the spectrum playtime can be quite solitary. It’s a chance for them to retreat in to a place of safety and calm with their specialist activities – Topics or games they know and love that provide a release from the chaos of the world. For Woody that’s aeroplanes. For other children it might be trains. Or escalators. Or socks. Or the entire back catalogue of Thomas The Tank Engine.

Kids on the spectrum often have sensory issues and for Woody aeroplanes crashing in to things gives him some sensory feedback which must feel good I guess. When he was younger he’d spend hours watching the wheels of toys spin out of the corner of his eye. It was this, plus the fact he would come home from nursery and play the same aeroplane game over and over again that made us suspect he might be on the spectrum. Just like we would come home from work and need a wine (or two) to unwind after our day, he would be getting that same chilled-out feeling from landing an aeroplane on a strip of floorboard in the living room over and over and over again until we were downing our wine just to block out the incessant, repetitive script and noise of metal on wood.

If we tried to get involved in these games; pick up a plane and pretend to land it too, then he would try and control us and the game and tell us exactly where that plane could land and what it could do. It’s always been like that to be honest. He controls every aspect of play so much that you’re rendered a silent spectator. It feels so alien to be sitting next to your child almost begging them to let you in and play. As we’re starting to understand a bit more of what autism is about in the last two years since his diagnosis, we can see why he plays the way he does, but it can make weekends – dare I say it – kinda dull. Watching your child play the same game over and over is boring and lonely and frustrating.

So we have to get quite inventive to participate in his world. There are the trips to Heathrow to watch the planes land which have become our boardgames, testing him to see which plane is coming in next. (His incredible memory for planes means he always wins, something we know makes him feel good.) And for his fourth birthday I spent my weekends making him his own runway to not only save my sanity, but my poor long-suffering floorboards too.

But in amongst the plane watching there are moments of unbelievable joy. I still remember the first time he let me make biscuits with him. Those moments have been so rare they’re glorious when they happen. He didn’t try and control the moment. Yes, he wanted those biscuits to be somehow crafted from slightly wonky gingerbread people in to aeroplanes, but we stirred and measured and iced those gingerbread 747s TOGETHER and it still brings a smile to my face.

This weekend he kicked a ball around the garden with his Dad and he didn’t have a tantrum or storm off when things got out of his control. Little windows open where we can seize a few minutes to play properly together. On a recent trip to Cornwall we tried boogie boarding for the first time. I made sure there was zero pressure, so no lessons or agenda or expectations as we’ve learnt he panics as soon as he’s given a ‘role’ or needs to try something he’s not 100% brilliant at already. As we both thrashed around aimlessly in the freezing sea like a couple of drunken seals, we laughed and squealed until our faces were numb from smiling (plus, I suspect, early-stage hyperthermia.) And you know what? It was truly, truly glorious.

Absolutely zero insta filter needed.

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