Before we do a deep dive into today’s topic, I want to throw out a disclaimer that I do not have any professional background with children, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or psychology or child development on any level.
I am, however, a mother to a six year old boy who at age two, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. I’ve documented what life was like leading up to that diagnosis, as well as some unexpected daily challenges you face when your child has ASD. Finally, as my professional immersion into pop culture continued, I wrote about the times I managed to successfully introduce pop culture to my son, Avery (heck yes named after Warner Bros./MGM legend Tex Avery).
Everyone who has a child on the spectrum or works with ASD children know that there’s no cut and dry way that autism presents itself. While similar ingredients go into autism and the symptoms (if you even want to use that word…patterns?) overlap, ultimately autism manifests differently in everyone. I’d mentioned in previous writings that in the case with my son, his ASD wasn’t especially noticeable until somewhere around the eighteen month mark. His physical milestones were all early, but when it came time for that socialization and play milestone to kick in and activate, we had some problems there. Which then affected the words he (in this case, wasn’t) saying.
Now as a Toy Journalist, people talk to me like my house is a 24/7 episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. People who don’t know about my son and his ASD ask me all the time “Is your son the happiest kid in the world having a mom who is a toy collector? Do your kids (I have a nearly four year old daughter too, of average development) get new toys all the time? Are your kids so excited to go to conventions with you since you work on the convention scene?”
The simple answer to all of those questions is no. But I’ll explain why and what I do around these parts to remedy these things.
So, there is going to be some overlap in this toys and games article from my pop culture article that is linked above, but that’s okay. We’re going to dig a little deeper in this one and discuss some new material, as well as jump around on the timeline. One thing to remember with children, and this is a particularly difficult one with children on the spectrum, is that the desire to play is supposed to come naturally. With some babies when this play milestone begins to kick in, sometime after pointing happens, they take an item (rock, stick, baby toy, or even nothing at all) and begin imitating actions that they saw their care giver perform. This could be pretending to talk on the phone, put on makeup, recreating hand gestures that their parents do, and repeating hand gestures from nursery rhymes and songs.
However, imitation can be a huge issue with some kids on the autism spectrum. They simply won’t imitate, which was the case with Avery as a baby. No imitation, no communication, no learning how to correctly play games. In my opinion, the basic premise of play and games need to be mastered before you can introduced a physical toy. While the days of spinning an OBall are behind us, Avery still gets a kick out of lining up small die-cast trains from Thomas and Friends. As parents of children on the spectrum know, spinning and lining things up are very common with autism. Quite often, the toys aren’t played with, as in a story/narrative/game are projected onto the items in question, but the items themselves are the game. The game is the lining up. The game is making a mess or knocking down a stack of blocks. It’s not building or utilizing what you’ve built within the game. It’s the destruction or touching the block that is the plaything.
It’s a little hard to explain.
As I’ve discussed in the past with my son and his particular flavor of ASD, it’s difficult to get him to connect to new franchises and media. This is a very important thing when it comes to toys and play, in my opinion. Especially early on, when children know that they want to play, but they may not have the mental fortitude to create brand new characters from scratch. It’s the same reason people write fan fiction. You have a character who you already know and love. All you have to do is possess some writing skills (IE: ability to play) and move them around the chessboard that is their world.
Therefore, if your child is a huge fan of Thomas and Friends, or a Disney franchise, or PJ Masks or Paw Patrol, they can have a toy of the character they love from TV and act out their very juvenile game of make believe onto said toy. But because Avery (and other kids on the spectrum) won’t watch new media, finding characters that they connect with can be very difficult.
I’m not even kidding, he will watch a four second loop of a Union Pacific train coming down the track, blaring its horn, on the loudest possible volume for hours if I were to let him.
All I can tell you parents out there is be patient. Keep trying– he or she will connect to something. What changed my world with Avery was when he got into Thomas and Friends, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and finally, the Mario franchise (Odyssey, Smash Bros., and Mario Kart). Now, he will use his sword props and slash a little, or sometimes we can go outside and he will “cook” like Link (though I wonder if this is just an excuse to make a mud-pie, but I digress).
So, where are those tips I promised were coming? Right here, thank you for making it this far. All right– at this point my child is six years old, and the line is becoming a little clearer where autism and his limitations start and end, and where typical bratty six year old starts and ends. It’s often difficult to tell, but with a little observation, you can at least become more aware of your child’s own pattern. Because we all know that that is much of autism; repetition, patterns, and routines.
1) Find Toys, Games, or Media where the characters make big, expressive faces
This was huge in getting Avery interested in play. One early game, introduced by his teachers was flashcards where characters are making faces. It became Avery’s job to identify the faces by the emotion. Something about this game clicked. To this day, Avery is attracted to shows and games where exaggerated expressions are the status quo.
2) Show them videos of other people of people playing
Avery wasn’t able to play with me, in spite of my best efforts. Learning through real life imitation wasn’t a productive learning method in my house. But you know what is? Videos of other people playing games and with toys. Blippi and Ryan’s Toy Review have been hugely helpful in my house. At first, I rolled my eyes and sneered at these seemingly schlocky, cheap videos on YouTube that seemed to have replaced for-real kids shows. Hey, I was a child of the first Nick Jr. run and I still think Lazy Town was the best thing ever to happen on TV. But my experience is not his. And your experience is not your child’s. And sometimes, we need to acknowledge our own limitations and hand the job over to a figure our children connect with, even if it’s someone on YouTube.
The ‘climb on playground equipment’ milestone (and fine motor skills) were late with Avery. He’s all caught up now, but it took a while before he would run up to the playground at a park or indoor play-place and dive in happily. Finally, Avery is playing with kids and not parallel to them. Learning how to play and what to play with goes hand in hand. Because the second those kids started playing with slime eggs and Mashums on YouTube, that’s what Avery started asking for. And because he started asking for it (remember that speech delay), I knew I had to reward him with the toy because I wanted him so badly to connect with play!
Another productive outlet has been letting Avery watch ‘Let’s Plays’ from YouTubers that I’ve pre-screened. He really likes this Australian guy named ‘Mr. A-Game’ who is sort of effortlessly witty and plays a lot of Breath of the Wild. You don’t want to let your kids (of any development) watch those yelling guys who all wish they were James Rolfe (who I love) circa 2006, but gentle and legitimately funny people are great for kids looking to learn how to play.
3) Take your time in the toy aisle and really let them explore
There’s a balance in parenting. Success lies somewhere in between helping guide your children into becoming what you feel is a good person and productive member of society and taking a step back and following their lead.
With autism, I’ve found that I can’t always teach Avery how to play a game ‘correctly’. Sometimes he will listen, sometimes he will understand, and sometimes he will comprehend that certain things have preexisting rules. But other times, he can’t. Therefore, it’s important for me to really clear time in the schedule to just follow him and take note of what he is attracted to.
As a toy journalist, I can try to buy new toys for Avery and quite often, I fail. I know what other kids in his age group want to play with, but for him, he sometimes won’t connect. Avery is also still hugely destructive (he really breaks and rips everything apart) and he’s a huge mouther (so everything gets chewed up). And because he often won’t tell me what they’re doing in school, I can learn about how he wants to play by following him around the toy aisle and letting him either tell me what he’s interested in, or he’ll start scripting something a YouTuber said about a game or toy. But you know what? He’s imitating and connecting. If he’s excited about a game or toy because it looks familiar, then I’m a happy mommy.
4) You have to understand that Autism isn’t going anywhere
One thing I’ve learned with my child on the spectrum is sometimes you just have to let them be on the spectrum. To quote his teacher, Avery works so hard in Kindergarten all day. He abides by the routine, does his school work, is on a tighter schedule than average developing kids (Speech therapy, occupational therapy, music, writing, advanced reading, etc.) that by the time class is over (at 2:09pm), the poor kid is ready to fall apart. Therefore, it’s your job as a parent to understand that when you take them out, sometimes those autistic tendencies are going to come out.
Sensory overload. Hiding in stores. Explosions when you try to take them on an outing. Hiding in caves at the zoo instead of seeing the animals. Running away in public. Inability to express what’s wrong. Punching, hitting, kicking, and crying because they they just want to go home where it’s quiet instead of going to a convention or amusement park. Feeling nervous or scared about new situations instead of excitement. But they can’t say these words sometimes. Not wanting to participate in a game or dance at school because there’s a disconnect between their body and feelings of being shy or embarrassed. Not being able to stray from the predictable comfort of their routine.
And that’s it– that’s sort of how I introduce my son to new toys and games. It may sound cliche, but being patient, slowing down, understanding your ASD child’s limitations while still doing your best to keep them on some sort of schedule is imperative to help them understand that it’s time to play. Even if it’s just twenty minutes per day, that’s more than you got when they were babies and wouldn’t say your name or look you in the eye. Be it art projects, the dreaded kinetic sand or slime, imaginary role playing…hopefully it will all lead to that magical peak of playing with toys. I’m still waiting for Avery to make up story with his trains or action figures to show me that his imagination is activating. He’s six and I’m still waiting for that day to come.
This story isn’t over– we’ve barely just crested the prologue. But the same as my pop culture article, I’ll say this. Provide your children with all realistic opportunities. Be as excited about the toys they do connect with as they are. Gush over anything new they show themselves in. And if you walk into the room and he’s suddenly watching Peppa Pig in Chinese in a seemingly endless loop, go to the discount store and buy every little Chinese British pig in the freakin’ room.
Because you never know when the day will come that your ASD baby makes those toys hug and kiss each other, finally imitating what you do to them every night.