The Play’s The Thing

When I first moved to California, I was struck by how seriously adults in the Bay Area took Halloween. From the decked out revelers in the Castro to the costumed-in-earnest chaperoning parents, it seemed like children no longer held the monopoly on the holiday. My years in theater certainly gave me a window into the delight of inhabiting a different persona. Still, it wasn't until I began my studies as a drama therapist that I learned the significance of dramatic play to child development. Now, twenty years later, I find myself spouting the necessity of play to anyone who will listen, namely for all ages on the autism spectrum. 

Children learn by playing, by trying on and taking on roles; it's how they come to understand themselves and the world in which they live. Play is the outward manifestation of each child's inner life. It contains the conflicts they are attempting to resolve and the challenges they are trying to master. And play is intrinsically relational. It is the meshing of at least two worlds and negotiation, compromises, and at times, heated debates. It is at its heart, collaborative. 

For many children, play comes easily. Infants are intrinsically motivated to pay attention to the faces of their caretakers and can see their feelings and experiences reflected back to them. This process, known as affective attunement, sets the stage for an infant beginning to recognize himself both physically and psychologically. Child psychiatrist Claudia Gold coins this beautifully as "holding the child's mind in mind" - leaving the child to feel seen and understood. In addition, the infant is looking to the caretaker to provide him with all the information he needs to navigate his world. This social-emotional coursework is not given in French, Swahili, or Portuguese, but through the universal language of affect. On any given day, a toddler may receive a stern look upon crawling towards the hot stove, a warm chuckle when she hugs her sister, and calm reassurance when she tries to walk on her own but falls. Through her mother's facial expressions and gestures, the toddler begins to learn that the hot stove is dangerous; affection is encouraged, and falling is part of learning. In addition to building schemas, these interactions also give personal significance to objects in the child's everyday life- like the rocking chair where the child was once nursed but is now the haven of mother and child during bedtime stories. In essence, the parents color the child's world with meaning.

While these emotional exchanges are educational, they also foster other essential capacities. Not only is the infant receiving all the good stuff his parents are putting out, but he is also learning that he can have an impact - when I smile, mommy smiles back; when I reach out for daddy, he picks me up. Just watch the mutual delight of Peek-A-Boo to see this phenomenon in action. This back and forth communication blossoms into social reciprocity and solidifies the bond between parent and child. When an infant can come to depend upon his parents to meet his needs, he will internalize that bond as a mental representation. In time, he can conjure up that mental image of Mommy or Daddy during a period of separation and project it onto on object- like a blankie- to soothe himself. British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls this "the child's first creative act."

 So when a little boy takes his fork and pretends it's an airplane, he is trying his hand at coloring an inanimate object with emotional meaning -marking the beginning of pretend play. Over time, the child can project a mental image of a person or fictional character onto himself and pretend to be Daddy or Superman or Darth Vader. All of these playful moments are integral to the acquisition of symbolic thinking and relational capacities. Taking on pretend roles is a precursor for perspective-taking and empathy. Turning one object into another lays the foundation for playing with ideas – the genesis of hypothesizing and complex problem-solving. 

Infants and toddlers on the spectrum can struggle to attend to their caretakers due to a variety of factors, including sensory overwhelm, interest in inanimate objects, inability to prioritize faces in the visual field. Due to slower processing and motor challenges, the baby with ASD may also have difficulty getting into the rhythm of the back and forth exchanges. Even the maternal gaze- the source of attunement and mirroring can be overwhelming for a little person on the spectrum. This means that although the attachment bond is formed, the autistic child is not getting the full benefit of the caretaker's lens to color the world with meaning for him. By missing much of the coursework, the social world can appear random, mystifying, and unpredictable. It is for this reason that as kids on the spectrum grow up, they are often found playing by themselves. Without some of the foundational capacities of social reciprocity, imaginary play, reading social cues, they cannot negotiate the complexity of playground interactions. And here we have the Catch 22: children on the spectrum need to play to develop these capacities but are kept from this experience due to a lack of basic play skills. This can get misinterpreted as the autistic child not being interested in playing or friendships. But this couldn't be further from the truth.

So how do we, at Helix, teach our students to play? The work of autism pioneer, Stanley Greenspan, provides the underlying theory for the answer. For a neurotypical child, adults who are willing to play are elevated to rock star status, just by giving their time and attention. But with our students, you may not get admission to the clubhouse so easily. We need to learn the password- the child's special interest. Depending on the student, it might be Super Mario, In-n-Out Burger, Scooby-Doo, Light Switches, or Sharks. Once granted access, we don't just nod politely in the direction of the interest– we actively engage. In one moment, this may mean donning a hula-hoop in red, white, and blue scarves with a teen, or in another, it may mean sitting quietly with a student, watching the way the light reflects on the ceiling. By holding the "child's mind in mind" and aligning with their interests, we see the magic happen. The dancing light becomes a song sung by a child and their speech therapist; the hula-hoop becomes Captain America's shield in a play session. The interest shifts from a solitary focus to something relational - it becomes playable. Through this mutual enjoyment within the play, reciprocity emerges organically. The teen is no longer scripting the Avengers but is now standing proud as Captain America, and what was once a stim is now a duet. The enthusiasm that was initially reserved for the special interest is transferred onto the relationship. Now on the student's radar, they are naturally motivated to read our emotions and social cues. By taking on various roles, exploring emotions, and creating stories- the student is getting to practice all the skills from early childhood but at his current developmental level. This can also give us traction throughout the day to introduce pockets of social-emotional learning. A student read my emotions perfectly when I was the Hulk, now let's see if he can read my cue that I want him to finish his math. We can start to encourage students to veer from the scripts and think symbolically, like coming up with a new ending for Indiana Jones. Transferring these play skills to structured peer interactions is the next step in the process. Last year, our school play was a great example of students sharing each of their special interests but working in collaboration as a team.

Playing well with others has far-reaching implications for your child's future. At Helix, we take play seriously. In fact, you may walk in one day as I did, and see Kelly Checo teaching multiplication. But you will not recognize her because she is dressed from head to toe as Darth Vader. And no, it was not Halloween.

Written by Liz McDonough, MFT