In the Playground – Autism

Yesterday while at the playground, Emma pushed a little boy off of a roundabout.  It wasn’t clear why she did this, though it reminded me of a game they played at camp where the little girls stood in line by the pool and then pushed the girl in front into the water.  (I can hear the defensiveness in this sentence, I know. But let me continue.)  The boy was seated on the edge of the spinning circle, like a giant saucer, filled with a dozen other children.  A few children were on the ground pushing, while running to make it go faster.  The children seated within the saucer were shrieking with laughter and then the little boy went flying off.  The child’s mother, understandably upset, was furious with Emma and yelled at her that this was unacceptable behavior.

I was seated with a friend of ours whose son was playing with Nic.  I noticed Nic staring at me with a horrified expression and making gestures with his hands for me to come.  When I reached him he told me what had happened.  “She just pushed that kid off, Mom.”

“Which kid?” I asked Nic.

“That one,” he pointed to a young child being led away by his mother.  “We were all just playing and this one kid was spinning the thing around really fast.  Emma was laughing and that boy was sitting pretty close to the edge and then Emma just pushed him and he went flying.  The mom got really mad and started yelling at Emma.”

“Okay.  Thanks Nic.”

I made Emma get off and had her sit on a bench next to her father.  I told her she was to sit still until I returned.  I then ran after the mother and her son, apologizing and explaining to her that Emma has autism.  I told her how very sorry I was and inquired after her son, who seemed frightened and confused.  I told him Emma hadn’t meant to hurt him.  The mother told me, with an apologetic look that Emma’s behavior wasn’t okay.  I nodded my head and agreed with her.  She then said, “Oh dear, I didn’t know.  I hope I didn’t scare her when I yelled at her, but I was so upset.”

I assured her that Emma was fine and again apologized for Emma’s behavior.  When I returned to where Emma was seated I said, “Emma.  You cannot push other children.  It is not okay to do that.  You could have hurt him.  Do you understand that, Emma?”

“You cannot push,” Emma said, nodding her head.

“That’s right.  You cannot push.”

“Go back?”  Emma asked, pointing to the spinning saucer.

“No.  You can sit here next to me.”

“One minute,” Emma said.

“Ten minutes.  You will sit next to me for ten minutes Emma.  And you may not play on that again.  You can run around and do other things.  And Em, if you push again, you will go home.  It’s not okay.  You could have hurt that little boy.”  Emma looked down at her hands.  “Do you understand, Em?  It’s not okay to push.”  I watched her for any sign of understanding.  She continued to stare down at her hands, which were in her lap.  “Em.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, mommy.  You cannot push.  It’s not okay.”

It is times like these that I feel at a loss.  We so rely on communicating through speech that these sorts of situations feel impossible with Emma.  She showed no sign of understanding, she wasn’t angry, she didn’t seem particularly upset, if anything she seemed completely baffled by the whole situation.  “Emma.  Why did you push him?”  I finally asked.

“You pushed.  It’s not okay to push,” was her response.

One hears about aggression in children with autism all the time.  Emma, when upset, frustrated or angry, usually hurts herself.  Biting her arm or hand is her most common reaction, but a few times she’s thrown something or punched herself in the face.  It is difficult to witness these acts of violence against herself.  It is even more difficult to make her understand why it’s not okay to hurt herself.

But this episode in the playground was different.  Emma wasn’t acting out in anger, evidently she’d had no interaction at all with the little boy she pushed.  What was going through her head?  Why did she push him?  It’s impossible to know.  But I do have a few ideas, none of which dismiss her behavior, but they do explain what may have happened.  Emma craves sensory input.  Often children who crave vestibular movement can be calmed by having ten minutes or so of it.  Emma appears to never be satisfied no matter how much she gets.  Richard and I have had countless conversations with her various therapists about this.  In our neuro-typical world we call people like this “thrill-seekers”.  In the world of autism it’s called sensory integration disorder –

Someone once explained to me that it’s a bit like having a body part fall asleep and the desire to stomp, pinch or hit that body part in the hope of “waking” it. Roller coasters, swings, trampolines, carousels, anything that moves quickly and erratically are Emma’s way of “waking”.  Pushing the boy was not an act or display of aggression as much as it was an unconscious response to her craving more movement.  It may be that he brushed against her by mistake or perhaps he was too close to her or she may not have been aware of him at all.  Unfortunately none of this helps the child who was pushed or his mother.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:

2 responses to “In the Playground – Autism

  1. I think you did the right thing with how you dealt with the situation. It is upsetting when our kids do those kinds of things.
    Even “typical” children will do things like this too. The difficulty is understanding the motivation behind it or the trigger.
    I have seen my daughter literally “clear” a playground when she had a meltdown because she wanted to use a swing ( and she really craves this kind of movement) and I had to stop her as a child was already using it. A lot of the harm was directed at herself.
    I looked up afterwards to find everyone had left!
    Another behavior that doesn’t get such a dramatic reponse is going up and smelling people if they have perfume or cologne on. She is very stimulated it seems by strong smells and tastes and craves them.
    I have always found the sensory needs very interesting. My 2 kids are opposites there. What my daughter Ros craves and calms her down mostly over stimulates her brother Liam and hypes him up.

    • Thank you Liz. Really appreciate hearing your own experience on this with your two. Who among us can’t relate to the whole clearing of the playground by our child with autism!?
      I was grateful to the other child’s mom who was understanding and though upset, thanked me for coming over to her. Years ago a little boy, who was very verbal, was never-the-less behaving in an aggressive manner toward both my children. At a certain point he called Emma a name and kicked her, then grabbed the bucket she was playing with and ran off with it. I approached the mother, (never once did it occur to me that the child was on the spectrum as he displayed none of Emma’s behaviors) and told her that her son had kicked Emma and taken her bucket. She apologized, but seemed unconcerned, so I went on to say that her child seemed a bit out of control, that he had called her names and that though Emma had autism and so the name calling didn’t seem to bother her, he was being mean. The mother then told me her child was also on the spectrum and suddenly all his odd behaviors made sense. I remember she said, “I don’t usually tell people because it doesn’t make any difference…”

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