Right now, somewhere out there a mom or dad is desperately trying to redirect their autism spectrum disorder child from a burdensome fixation or obsession. They may be at their rope’s end trying to curb that obsession and break through to that mystical, elusive land of “typical play” or “age-appropriate interests.”
I want to share a story. I share this story not as a therapist, doctor or expert in the field. I share this story as a dad who has been there. I share this story as a dad who has made mistakes and spends every waking minute of every day searching for the right answers. I share this story with full confidence that many will disagree.
There once was a boy. Let’s call him, “Eric”. Eric was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2.5, and, like most kids on the spectrum, developed limited and deeply intense interests. Eric became fascinated (fixated, obsessed) at a very young age with “Sesame Street” characters.
By the time Eric was 4 or 5, his daddy started to become seriously concerned with hisfixations. Terms like “age-appropriate” and “typical imaginative play” were Googled regularly. Eric’s daddy started to grow desperate to break his fixations. Eric’s daddy started making mistakes that caused pain for Eric and had no success in curbing these fixations — mistakes like hiding Eric’s favorite toys and becoming angry with his son for not playing typically.
Then Eric’s daddy had a breakthrough and decided to try a new strategy:
Just Chill Out.
Eric’s daddy decided that “age-appropriate” was overrated and “typical play” was an elusive, nebulous concept that only served to add tension and anxiety to his family. Eric’s daddy decided to accept his son’s quirky fascinations rather than attack them.
Well-meaning friends, family and experts quietly questioned this strategy. Hell, Eric’s daddy regularly questioned this strategy. But they plowed on… Just Chilling Out.
Eric’s interest slowly began to expand to other animated characters. But “typical play” remained elusive as Eric’s preferred activity remained lining up his favorite characters, inspecting them and stimming on them. Eric’s daddy now questioned the wisdom of not nipping these fascinations in the bud early on.
It wasn’t easy, but he kept on Just Chilling Out.
As the years went on, Eric’s Daddy grew pretty skilled at wiggling his way into Eric’s world of fascinations and incorporating them into daily lessons and “typical play.” He also got pretty good at knowing when to back off and leave his son to explore his world on his own.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Eric began to show signs of imaginative play. Stimming sessions began to morph into detailed models of favorite scenes.
Soon, Eric began to incorporate dialogue into his models, and they grew into complete reenactments. His style of play expanded to what any expert would recognize as “imaginative” and “typical.”
Then something even cooler happened. Eric started to deviate from the scripted reenactments of the scenes and pursue his own narratives, incorporating and intermingling different characters in a way that was unmistakably “imaginative.”
Finally, Eric began asking his daddy to join him in his play. He began seeking out creative ways to expand his play using props and craftsmanship that blew his daddy away.
That’s where Eric, now turning 10, and his daddy are today. Having fun, imagining and learning from each other… and continuing to Just Chill Out.
This post originally appeared on Bacon and Juice Boxes: Our Life With Autism.