My six-year-old autistic son learnt to engage in “pretend play” a lot later than most children. Over the last couple of years though, he has figured out that he can pretend something is there that isn’t there (an imaginary friend), or that something is other than what it actually is (a food bowl as a bike helmet). Although he’s figured out how to play pretend – and can clearly enjoy himself doing so – he’s currently very much struggling with how others perceive and interpret his pretend play.
A typical example: My son will announce to me that he is a puppy. He’ll make his doggy noises or walk around like a dog. He’ll involve me by directing his play at me. But if I call him a puppy, and maintain the pretend play he himself has initiated, he can get quite upset, almost distraught: “I’m not a puppy, I’m just pretending. Be sensible!”
The complaint from him that he’s not really what he’s pretending to be, always starts off with a mostly calm insistence that he’s pretending. If we ever pursue the pretend scenario or try to maintain the state of play, his anxiety levels increase and any fun he’s having quickly dissipates.
My husband and I thought it would be obvious that we know he’s pretending; that my son’s not really someone else, or a puppy, or whatever. Yet we’re always met with that statement – “I’m just pretending!” – delivered in an anxious, frustrated, insistent tone. As if he really isn’t sure that we know he’s pretending, and as if our not knowing that he is pretending would have frightful outcomes.
I know that the problems he faces in this area are going to be described by some as issues with “empathy” or more generally as problems with accessing others’ mental states. Personally, I’m not sure how to interpret it; I’m still trying to get my head around why he struggles with it as much as he does. I know it’s related to his autism, that much is clear.
I’ll raise the situation with his developmental pediatrician who we are due to see later this week. In the meantime, I’m hopeful someone who reads this post might be able to give me some insight and perhaps suggest a way forward, so us joining in his pretend play is less upsetting and confusing for him. The best I can come up with at this point is to use signal words; verbally and clearly mark out for him that we acknowledge he is engaged in pretend play and we are now joining him in that form of play.
I suppose an alternative is to simply not join him in his pretend play since it upsets him in this way, but the problem remains that he seems to need to learn something from these situations; something to do with how others perceive and recognise his pretense, and that it is not threatening but a form of play if we (or others) try to join him. If we as his parents can teach him this, we can hopefully avoid the situation arising in an upsetting way with his peers or other adults who aren’t as aware of his upset and confusion.
I hate seeing my son get upset over something that is meant to be fun, and I want him to see that we are interested and engaged and encouraging of his forms of play. How do I get him to understand that when I look at him pretending to be something else, I always still see my perfect son in front of me? Even as I write that sentence I realise that perhaps he is overly concerned about and involved in trying to access my mental state – just in the same way he tends to be overly aware and involved in my emotions. Writing these things down helps to organise my thoughts, but I still can’t see my way clear to why this is happening or what best to do about it.
Have you been through something similar? What would you do?