I’ve been having one of those “Wow” experiences while working with a 4 year-old boy on the autism spectrum. It wasn’t that many months ago that Sam (not his real name) did not know how to engage in pretend play and showed little interest in playing with peers or alone with representational toys to encourage language like a fire station with firefighters, playhouses and little people or a zoo set. He has made steady progress learning to follow my model in play, becoming fascinated with Max and Ruby books and their plush figures, expanding his play with props and PlayDoh. Fast forward to the last 2-3 weeks and we have made a major jump. I thought I would bring Build and Imagine’s “Fairytale Theater” set for our play time, even though it was a stretch, as it involves a lot of creating, modifying, building and initiating a story. Add to that the mom said he doesn’t like fairy tales because he is scared of them. One of our goals is that he “speak” for his figure and engage in conversation with mine.
Sam loved setting up the magnetic panels and decided we were going to the castle to see the king. He chose the boy figure, dressing him while I was the girl. We went through the forest scene, knocked on the castle door and he placed his figure in front of the armoured guard in the throne scene to start talking to “the king!” We asked him for breakfast, waited for it to be prepared and then went back home.
Many children on the autism spectrum have intense interests in specific things, often mechanical, like elevators, light switches or doors. One can take advantage of these specific interests and integrate them into therapy activities. Sam focuses on doors so the magnetic panels are appealing, especially the Fairytale curtains that can open and close. I use it as motivator, telling him that he can put the curtains on at the end to complete his show.
Sam liked the Fairytale Theater so much that I brought “Malia’s House”and “A Day at the Beach,” wanting to see what he would do with 2 sets–perhaps too overwhelming. They have taken over our therapy sessions because Sam’s pretend play, creativity, and flexibility have expanded exponentially! The minute he greets me at my car he asks if we can play “The Beach Game!” Now he starts assigning roles, that I am Skylar and he is Graham (he named the figure). Yesterday we visited Skylar’s house, ordered our lunch from Mom through the pull down window, swam in the pool, ate lunch and then returned to Malia’s house to play some music and sing on our microphone. Play moved on when Sam said, let’s go out to the swings!
Mom sees the impact of a toy that can inspire and grow a child. She told me yesterday that the play is extending outside the therapy sessions. He is going into his playroom now and continuing some of the dialogue and themes started with the beach sets. (When I first met Sam, his playroom was loaded with vehicles and had very few figures to inspire dialogue. He wasn’t interested in playing with play people.) Additionally he played with a dollhouse at grandma’s over the weekend that hadn’t been of interest to him previously.
Near the end of our play, Sam looked at me, pointed to Malia’s house and said, “This is a schoolhouse,” and we were off and running with a new story theme! Sam is now directing the play which maximizes learning.