Most interesting Google search question of the week

‘How long does it take to teach an autistic kid to tidy toys?’

What a corker!

Whilst I’m tempted to launch in with my size tens, I think I would have to own up and say that without asking a few questions of my own, I should have no idea. What would I need to know? Their age, both chronological and developmental, just for starters. It would be helpful to know their current means of communication, verbal, PEC’s, sign, although not essential. I think my biggest question would be, ‘has he or she learned how to play?’ This might see a rather strange kind of a query. Surely if there are toys that need tidying, then there must be someone playing with them? A good point, but not necessarily true. There is a big difference between dumping out a trough full of toys onto the floor for easy access, and actually playing with them.

A child who has learned to play doesn’t actually need any toys because ordinary household objects can be playthings with a little imagination. A wooden spoon can be an oar or a magic wand. This ability is innate in many people, but not in others. Some children can pretend that a Superman figure is a baby doll, or that a baby doll is a dog, or that a dog is a horse. Other people, with help and encouragement can learn these things too.

Still doubtful? It may help to observe the child in question. Does he really play or merely repeat movements, stereotypical, over and over again. Similarly when children line up objects or toys. Then there is also scripting when a child can repeat a storyline from a book of film with exactitude. Sadly, once these behaviours are recognized for what they are, all too often this is the spark that people wish to extinguish. For my children, these behaviours, and others, were a starting point, something to ignite and work with, rather than against.

How else can you tell whether play skills are under developed? An easy test it to take the child to a toy shop. Some children dive into the store and head straight for their favourite spot. Others browse everything in awe, flit from shelf to shelf. Still others refuse to get into the car in the first place and have no interest in going to any shop, let alone a toy shop.

On arrival, some of these children prefer to play with the electronic doors, many cannot go inside because of the lighting, the noise, the busyness and are completely overwhelmed. Some may find the shop entertaining because they can read the labels or examine price tags, as numbers are generally enthralling wherever they happen to be. In fact they can be so enthralling that this particular child refuses to leave the store.

So, my initial answer would have to be, first teach your child to play. I like to think that play, is children’s work. Once they have learned to play, then teaching anything else is so much easier. I’m almost tempted to say that teaching play skills is even more important that attempting to teach speech to the non-verbal. This is because a child may have fabulous speech facility but still be incapable of play, whereas once a child can play, then teaching speech is a prolonged and life long game, but I’m more than open to opposing views.

These are just a few hints. It may be that your child already plays delightfully, in which case, learning to tidying up will be an absolute breeze. If on the other hand, you recognize something here, then I can only say that all is very far from lost. Not so long back my own non-verbal children did not play. Now they play and they speak. What’s more, they have achieved the pinnacle of success in my book, namely, pretend play, where the only limits are the outer edges of our own imaginations.

Still don’t “believe” me. Would I lie to “you?”


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Early Days 8 – cracking the code

That innocent word, ‘play’ can be huge hurdle for some autistic children. “Scheduling time” is a marathon and many of us, parents that is to say, have a hard time planning out what to do, how and when?

What we [parents] refer to when we say ‘play’ seems simple enough and doesn’t need any explanation, but ‘play’ when it comes to autistic children may not be quite so straightforward.

If you looked at my boys when they were little, you would have seen them playing, not just the typical autistic play of lining things up, moving toys in a mechanical and repetitive manner, examining some tiny feature on a toy but behaviour that would ‘pass’ as typical play. Teasing these elements apart, unless you are very observant or a play therapist, is not that easy for the novice. [translation = me]

The key element that experts often refer to is ‘lack or impairment of imaginative play.’ When I looked at my boys, I would see them pretending to be dinosaurs, or dinosaur eggs. To me that looked like imaginative play, there was no impairment that I could see. I knew what my eyes saw and yet I knew that I was missing something, but I didn’t know what it was?

A typical exchange at that time would be when I watched my son be an Allosaurus. I wasn’t allowed to join in, though I often tried. [translation = on each occasion that he pretended to be whichever dinosaur was in favour that day] He didn’t mind me watching by then. [translation = first he was unaware that I was watching, then when he did become aware that I was watching, he objected violently] This was something that he played alone. Since dinosaurs were his area of enthusiasm, this was my cue to engage with him. [translation = joint attention]


I had learned to be upbeat and use simple language. His mimicry was superb, his body and gestures matched those in the many, many books we had about dinosaurs. I knew that to praise him, would guarantee a level 10 meltdown. It also took me a long time to correct myself. [translation = not to ask a question that elicits a response, which would seem the most obvious step when you’re dealing with a speech delay, but instead, to make a statement which removes the pressure and stress of having to find a response]

At that time we were still trying to fathom out his rule matrix. [translation = the many triggers to meltdowns] One trigger was buried in this daily ‘pretend’ play, but I didn’t know what it was. The experts always ask you, ‘and what exactly preceded the outburst’? I knew that I was doing something wrong and provoking his meltdown. I changed ‘my script,’ my ‘approach,’ and everything else I could think of, to try and make it work, but the outcome was always the same. It remained the same until he was able to use enough words for me to be able to translate and interpret their meaning.

I watch. I have a pad of paper and pencil behind me listing in detail each exchange we have attempted over the last 27 days all of which have been unmitigated failures, each of which I’ve crossed off, eliminated. I am going to play dinosaurs with my son if it kills me. [translation = or the T-rex bites my head off first]


“You are a Lambiosaurus!” He rears up a little in response, bears his teeth a little more and claws the air in slow motion. I watch carefully, willing myself to see the trigger. Nothing. So far so good. He jumps onto the sofa a morphs into a different dinosaur. Which one? I watch. I watch until I am sure.
“You are a fantastic Stegosaurus!” He snaps a glare at me! I used a ‘praising adjective’ by accident! It just slipped out! I hold my breath waiting for the explosion. Nothing. I got away with it, but he did notice the word. Maybe I’ve made a mistake? Maybe all this time I’ve been assuming that he didn’t like praise but actually it’s something else that’s setting him off? What could it be?


He lumbers off the couch onto the floor and morphs into a, into a ? yes, into ….. “You’re pretending to be a fabulous Parasaurolophus!” I blurt with unsuppressed excitement. He arches back raging at the ceiling, screaming his lungs empty, not as any dinosaur but as a misunderstood child. He rolls on the floor crying and beating the carpet. What? What? What? Please help me understand.

I can’t believe that I’ve blown it again. I rub his back as he curls into a small hard ball, blocking me out. I wipe away the tears coursing down his cheek his body wrapped up like an egg. Why is there no manual? No book? No ‘how to?’ Can you plead with a four year old?

All I can say is ‘sorry’ quietly, again and again as I stroke his silky hair. He calms, slowly and lifts his head, “I not pretend,” he says crisply. These are probably the only three words he will utter during the next 24 hour period. 3 words. His eyes stare into mind. Eyes may be windows but I still can’t see. He says it again with emphasis on ‘pretend.’ 6 words in 24 hours! Does this mean they’ll be no words tomorrow, that he’s used up two days supply of words? I cringe at the thought of the future silence, wasted on a repetition because I am too stupid to understand him the first time. I stare at the surface of his glistening eyes willing myself to see.
“You’re not pretending you ARE a dinosaur!” I gasp. He dives at me, medicine ball head to sternum shouting “YES!”
We rock. 7 whole words! We rock back and forth clutching each other with all the force that can be mastered by a four year old.

He bursts away from me, “I am egg! You sit on me!” I am in a state of shock, too dumb to quibble, I simply obey. I sit on my son who is curled up like an egg. [translation = proprioceptive input on the sly] The egg starts to crack as I move off, to find that a baby Corythosaurus has hatched, tweets mewling noises and preens his crest for my wonderment. He had invented a game for us to play together, our first real pretend play. He has used 14 words in one day. We played it every day. I try hard to forget to count words. It was my all time favourite game ever.

Lastly, a lesson in imaginative play, brought to you by the ‘guy’ I love to hate, Spongebob et al in ‘The Idiot Box.’ [translation = television]

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