One thing that's supposed to be a sign of autism is the inability to interact with others. You know: autism means being locked inside yourself, being by yourself. This is probably one of the biggest myth about autism. Max has never been 'locked inside himself', and he's always been quite a social little thing. He loves it when we have guests, flirts with all of his older sister's friends (quite outrageously at that) and is great with younger kids. But what he's always had trouble with is forming relationships of any kind within his peer group. And that, not the inability to form relationships at all, seems to be what a lot of autistic people have difficulties with.
So until very recently, Max would not join in games with other children. If we had children his age coming over, he would, more often than not, end up playing in his room by himself. This is beginning to change slowly, and that's in great part thanks to group therapy and a little boy's love of housework.
Pretty early after Max received his (late) diagnosis, his teachers decided that one thing he really needed help with was interacting with children his own age. So they put him down for various group therapy classes. One of those classes was a play therapy session which he shared with another boy. Both were at the stage where they could play pretend games, or ball games with their teacher, but had to learn to play with each other.
When they started, Max was six, nearly seven, and E., the other boy, had just turned six. Neither were very verbal at the time. The sessions were filmed, so over the past year and a half, we've been given cds to watch, where we could observe their progress.
Max was very resistant at first. He would scream in the bus if I mentioned that E. would be sharing his play therapy session. Then, during the session, they mostly ignored each other. At first.
The session was broken up in two parts. In the first part the game were structured - the teacher would tell them what to do: play catch, pretend you're a hairdresser and a customer, a father and a son going to school in the morning, etc. Then there would be the unstructured play: the boys would be left to their own devices, and hopefully start joining in with each other's activities.
During the structured play sessions, in the first few weeks, Max and E. would look to the teacher for instructions, and, when they participated, speak to her rather than each other. She was always their intermediary, the important person in the room. Max resented E.'s presence, as he wanted to have the therapist to himself. He'd developed habits, there were games he liked to play with her, and he didn't see why as well as having to do yet more work he should have to share those moments with a little usurper. No doubt the usurper in question felt the same. But we wouldn't necessarily know: even if Max whined and cried all the way to the centre, the minute he arrived and saw E. he was all politeness.
Strangely enough, it was during unstructured play that the ice got broken. I say strangely because autistic kids are not usually very good at unstructured anything. They usually feel more at ease if they know exactly what to expect and when to expect it. And time they spend left to their own devices is often time they retreat inside themselves, not paying attention to what is going on around them.
This is how it happened. During the second half of their sessions the boys were told to go and play with anything they fancied in the room. Max made a beeline for his beloved doll house and toy cars. But E. found something much more exciting to do. He picked up a cloth and a water spray (not sure what they were doing there, but, hey!) and started cleaning the windows. Max observed and commented. This was the first time he openly acknowledged the presence of E. in the room. Then he found another cloth and joined in. When they came out, the teacher informed me that the boys had spent twenty minutes cleaning windows together.
The following week, E. found a toy ironing board. So they cleaned the windows, then did the ironing.
After a few weeks of this, the ice had melted and the boys, finding they had quite a lot in common after all, agreed to communicate, and tried to engage with each other during the first, structured, half of the session. They played ball games, guessing games, musical chairs, role playing games. And what's more, they had fun. It was no longer work, but play as it should be.
The last time Max was unhappy on his way to play therapy was when I told him E. wouldn't be there. He moved to another city just before we went away on vacation. There was going to be a goodbye party but the dates got muddled and the day on which it was supposed to happen we were away.
It's sad to think that little E. prepared a cake to share with Max and their teacher, and that Max wasn't there. It's sad to think they won't play together again. I hope that he'll find another play mate where he is. And I think that there is one lined up for Max here. But more importantly, Max is confident enough now to try and play with other kids. It's happening slowly, but it's happening. One day at the beach he met a boy his age. They played together with a toy truck, and when the boy started kicking a ball around, Max got up and went off to play football with him. That's progress.
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