Autistic children are known for their inability to engage in imaginary play. A defining moment for my husband, Richard and me was when it was pointed out Emma did not seem interested in any form of pretend play. Until then I had reasoned: she was too much of a tomboy, she didn’t like dolls, she was like my sister, it ran in the family. But the truth was; not only did Emma lack any interest in dolls, she showed no interest in stuffed animals or toys of any kind including horses, a favorite of my sister’s when she was small.
When Emma began playing with her monster, Muzzy, we were elated. Despite the comments other children, especially little girls who saw Emma, made. “Mommy, why does she have a monster in her stroller?” One such child asked in puzzled wonder this summer.
“I don’t know honey,” the mother said, looking from me to Emma with a speculative glance as she grabbed her child’s hand and hurried away.
Comments aside, we were ecstatic. Muzzy was the first toy Emma had shown any sustained interest in. Granted she played with Muzzy in an odd way – tossing him in the air while laughing, throwing him on the ground so he would, “hurt his head” – it was play however unusual, which suggested tremendous progress. See Em & Muzzy, Emma’s Pal Muzzy & The Porkmepine and Panama – Day 3.
Last night when Emma disappeared into her bedroom only to emerge moments later carrying not one, but two of her dolls, I was again ecstatic.
“Richard!” I whispered. “Look!”
Emma sat on the couch holding Jessie who had on a fabulous green coat over her chaps and another doll I’d forgotten we even had. Granted the doll’s hair looked like a “bad hair day” poster child, but Emma seemed unaware and proceeded to hold each in one hand making them bop up and down.
“It’s Jessie,” Emma said, surveying her red cowboy hat with a discerning eye.
“And what about her? What’s her name?” I asked gesturing to the other doll.
“Dolls”, Emma said.
“But what’s her name?” I asked again.
“Her name Dolls,” Emma said, turning her back to me.
Emma with Jessie and “Dolls”
Emma did not engage in much language as she played and rebuffed our attempts to “play act”. But she said hi to Jessie and observed Jessie was hot and needed to take her hat and coat off. She repeated this with “Dolls”.
Emma Taking Off Jessie’s Hat
At a certain point she looked over at Richard with an impish grin and said, “Dolls fall down?”
“Is the doll falling down?” I said.
“Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh!” Emma laughed before flinging the doll to the floor. Then she pretended to cry and said, “Doll crying, doll hurt. Doll hurt her head.”
“Oh no! Did she fall? Is she alright?”
“Down, down, down! Help you up, help you up!” Emma said in a sing songy voice.
“Who’s going to help her up, Em?” I asked.
“Help you up,” Emma said again.
“Are you going to help her?” I asked.
“Doll, Doll, come!” Emma said. Emma leaned down and made the doll pat her head while saying, “Doll hurt her head.”
Emma became stuck in a verbal loop with the above dialogue, repeating it over and over again.
Richard and I suggested she be the one to help Doll up, which she finally did.
“Thank you!” Emma said as she lifted Doll up and gently placed her on the couch. “Doll crying, Doll see Mommy, Doll hurt her head,” Emma said.
“Oh, no! Let me see,” I said.
“Hi Mommy, time to go home,” Emma said without giving me Doll.
“Can I hold her, Em?” I asked.
“Time to go home,” Emma repeated, ignoring me. Then she put Doll’s coat back on and laid her carefully on the ground. “Good night,” she said, pretending to be the doll.
“Good night Dolls,” Emma said, in response.
Hey it’s play, no matter how bizarre. It is imaginary play. Each tiny step of progress, no matter how small, is progress.