Some children on the spectrum focus on their favorite toys early on and stick with them. Their likes and dislikes are obvious and rarely vary. Most things for children on the spectrum are routine, and often, the way they play can appear to be obsessive. Other children like my son, Rhys, don't seem to fit this "textbook" definition of ASD behavior. In our case, it's almost the opposite.
From a very early age, Rhys didn't seem to express specific interest in balls or cars or blocks, or any of the expected playthings for his age. He still doesn't exhibit particular preferences for toys. He prefers tinkering with objects around the house (usually those not designed for children to play with - case and point: a tablet in the toilet). This, coupled with the fact that I'm not a "roll on the carpet and make up fun games" kind of mom, has made play a platform of growth for the both of us.
I always envisioned my parenting journey to be a little more hands-off, leaving my kids to their own devices at the hands of their imaginations.
Learning without language.
Learning what Rhys likes and dislikes without using the language we use as a hearing family has been a long road. It's a journey I never anticipated as a new mother - I mean, it was a journey I never envisioned at all. Rhys' ASD diagnosis came when he was three, a year after he won a battle against bacterial meningitis. After being home for a few weeks from the ICU, we discovered that our sweet boy had lost his hearing in the process. When Rhys received his cochlear implants, we knew we would have to teach him how to communicate again - but never once did we expect that we'd have to teach him how to play.
We've discovered what makes him happy and brings him joy - all somehow, without any words.
Rhys' neurotypical three-year-old brother, Cam, picks up a car and rolls it along the carpet. He kicks a ball instead of trying to find the perfect-sized hole to fit it in. He rolls and shapes playdough rather than pressing it against his lips or sneaking a bite every now and then. The story with Rhys at 5-years-old is different. He seeks sensory stimulation, falls into patterns, and often finds himself preoccupied along the way.
Practicing playWith Rhys, every day is a focus on practicing play. It hurts that I don't know his favorite color or what he wants to play with and when, but I often remind myself I have a unique and close-up view of how the world works for him. A perspective I never would have had if I wasn't his mom.
There will always be a fine line between allowing Rhys the freedom to focus on things he loves while also making sure we expand his platforms of play. But we've discovered what makes him happy and brings him joy - all somehow, without any words. We've all come so far, and it's something we should remind ourselves to celebrate.
While flashcards and family board games are a little (or long) while away, our family has a handful of activities that always bring fun (basically anything that spins). We've learned to read a room, keep Rhys' play spaces minimal and give him less to choose from, and by pure trial...and many errors, we've learned what needs to stay very high up (and out of sight) until we can supervise the activity.
Our world of play is different from most families. For us, it's less about putting something out to occupy our ASD kiddo and more about pausing to include him in tasks, structure his sensory inputs, create safe spaces for him to explore, and doing this all with a very healthy dose of patience.
We're learning as we go - but that's one thing I think all parents can relate to.
Christine is a Zimbabwean-born, South-African raised, Irish-passport holding Canadian raising tiny tornadoes in the form of two cute brothers in Burlington, Ontario. She is a photographer, writer, and content creator constantly in search of stories to share in any way, shape, or form. She shares more about the ever-evolving adventure that is special needs parenting at @paperplanesandpeaches on Instagram, where she practices positivity daily and hopes to help other parents find the joy in the imperfect, messy middle.