“I’m just pretending!” The unintended threat of joining my son in pretend play.

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?

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15 Responses to “I’m just pretending!” The unintended threat of joining my son in pretend play.

  1. Paul says:

    I’m autistic and I can see his point of view. The pretence is his creation. You can’t extend it, only he can. Someone ‘playing along’ is threatening because they’re taking away control. I would suggest to accept it and talk to him like you normally would, but maybe let him see that you’re amused and you aren’t ignoring him. He will probably only do it around people he trusts.

  2. This may be obvious – and you might have tried it already – but have you asked if you can join in with his pretend play before initiating? Something like, “May I pretend with you? Should I pretend to be a dog or a cat?”
    Asking this way let him know that you know it is pretend, and also allows him to guide the direction of the play.


  3. rebelmommy says:

    Great post! We have the exact same scenario at our house, with one of our boys. He MUST qualify his pretend play with “I am only pretending!” We have found that fully acknowledging his feelings, and actually just describing the process of pretend playing to him, has helped him loosen up a bit and push the boundaries of how far from reality he can go. There are times when he needs the control and we let him have it, and other times that we push him just a bit, playfully. I shared this post, along with one that I wrote on topic with my FB page. Thanks!

    • Thank you rebelmommy. Thanks as well for sharing your experiences and tactics, always good to hear that I’m not alone, and to hear about how others have successfully dealt with these challenges. I appreciate it.

  4. I can’t get over the adorable image of your six year old telling you to “Be sensible!”

    Having said that, I totally agree with Monica and Paul. Both of my younger sons had very different ways of learning imaginative play, but the sameness seemed to be about control. With Shay,who’s challenge was similar to your sons, though admittedly with less anxiety and more confusion, the best way to help him get comfortable with pretend play was by getting down (and often very dirty, he loves mud!) with him and letting him choose who we were, what we were and exactly what came next in his game. There were some meltdowns (his communication and language being so different from mine, I couldn’t always understand what was expected.) but eventually we bonded, and even more eventually my ideas were not always discarded and considered completely ridiculous!

    With Declyn I did a similar thing, got very involved in his games and allowed him much control, but his challenge was different. He tended to get lost in his imagined world and be quite uncomfortable with the real one. So, I introduced some reality into our games and tried to make it fun. We bonded, we had fun, and eventually he asked me to stop playing! He still has a habit of hiding in the world of pretend, be it with video games or running around outside with only his dog, and a very real anxiety when it comes to true life social situations, whether it be school or family functions, but the communication between he and I is very open. I like to think that part of the reason is my willingness to enjoy his pretend worlds. Also–like you!–I believe in explaining my choices and respecting his.

    ASIDE: Autistic or not, our kids truly don’t have much control in their lives. It’s quite wonderful when we offer it up, for them and us as parents. It’s surprising what we can learn about our kiddos when they are in control of the game!

    Hugs and good luck!!!

  5. Laura says:

    I work as a behavior therapist and have found it helpful to teach different play schemes to kids and gradually build upon that. What if instead of having him pretend to be something different he use toys. Perhaps you can coach him thru pretending some of his toys are going to school, or the zoo. I would work on a few play schemes at a time until he is able to do them independently. For example play doctor, teacher. Incorporate his interests. If he loves airplanes maybe he would want to be pretend his toys ar going to the airport. Try to pick something that is familiar to him, so he can draw upon those experiences for ideas. With one of the kids I work with, I make a list of things that we are going to do during our thematic play so that she has some ideas that she can draw upon. It is typically hard for people with autism to engage in thematic play because they are so concrete, but I would not stop trying. Is he able to pretend that an object is something different that what it is? For instance can he prentend that a stick is a magic wand? If not, it may be a good beginning step to begin helping him work on learning how to pretend that an object can also be something other than what it is. A round checker can be a cookie, or a pizza… I hope this if helpful.

  6. Delwyn McKennie says:

    He could feel anxious if you ‘play along’ because he fears you will continue believing he is a dog even after he has stopped the pretend scenario. Maybe you could try being really overt about knowing it is pretend while still joining in, eg say “come and lay on the carpet pretent-doggie”. Or if you think he can understand maybe reassure him that when he is ready to stop pretending he just needs to tell you and you will also revert to your usual behaviours.

  7. blogginglily says:

    I remember when I played with others as a child that it annoyed the hell out of me when they would “announce” they were pretending something. “I’m going to pretend to fly over here.” To me, that ruined the illusion. By announcing he was pretending it wrecked the fantasy I was trying to create.

    This is sort of what you indicated with regard to signalling or code words, but I wonder if it’s just as simple as announcing what you’re pretending as you pretend it. So he’s clear that you’re pretending.

    He announces that he’s a dog. You announce that you’re going to pretend to feed him like a dog, or something similar. Not code words so much as a declaration of pretend so everyone’s clear that you know it’s not real. That seems really safe. (and what totally annoyed the hell out of me as a kid when my friends would do it, but might make him feel a little more grounded).

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