In thinking ahead about this Thursday’s event: The Magic of Play, I’ve been reflecting on how play has shaped my relationship with my son on the spectrum. When he was a toddler, cause-and-effect toys were a delight—the delicious anticipation of the pinched balloon ready to writhe around the room, the toppling of toilet paper towers, and the spinning top that jolts and wobbles. I often took the lead in this kind of play, seeking after joint attention and loving every minute of it, though always worried that I wasn’t doing “enough.”
My son’s favorite toys were trains. I would build tracks and he would inspect them, rolling train cars across each junction and bridge, back and forth, pausing with his eyes close to the track to take in the motion. To this day, he loves watching the mechanics of motion, especially flow. He still gets this look of recognition, of deep interest in something he sees, and then his eyes get a far off look as his mind switches into high intensity mode.
It wasn’t always easy to enter in to play when he was in that mode. Nevertheless, I would sit beside him, narrating my play with words from Thomas the Train books. “Oh no, there’s a fault in the track!!” The familiar lines would draw his attention to my train’s dilemma for a rescue and then we’d haul freight together. I think, back then, I didn’t trust my child’s look of intense focus. I felt like it meant autism was pulling him away from me. I thought I had to “up my play game” to compete for his attention. Unconsciously, I think I didn’t trust my son and the way he is wired.
Over time, I kept observing, entering into, and growing in appreciation of his play. I recognized that high intensity mode in the look on his face in other situations. He saw flow as he washed ribs of celery in the sink. He saw it in the merging traffic lanes and spiraling parking ramps. “It’s like a current,” he observed, as he gazed from the balcony at the people filing out of church pews. His intense, captivated expression helped me recognize the way he saw the world. With that understanding, I gradually chose to trust him and follow his lead.
And what a leader he is! Now he leads the way on veering, twisting mountain bike trails with a focused, elated glint in his eyes. He shares he latest maze drawings, complete with color-coded portals adding a Chutes and Ladders-like element of complexity and color. He offers to be my “navigation system,” rivaling Siri in precision from the back seat of the car.
As I think about it, my son and the way he plays and engages with the world has been consistent through the years. It’s been me who’s changed by entering in, trusting myself and trusting my son of my son and his strengths.
I know that Katrina Kramlich’s talk will provide affirmation and encouragement for me. I also look forward to a boost of inspiration and maybe even some insights from this experienced educator on what new growth the coming years might hold.