Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Parallel Play

We took the boys to the Wister Spray Park today (Sunday), and as I was watching them play I noticed something that is very common in autistic children.  I was thinking that, if someone who didn’t know Konner was there today they probably wouldn’t notice anything different about Konner. They surely wouldn’t notice that he’s autistic. This is because with High-Functioning Autism there are only small quirks that set him apart from others.

However, there was one thing that gave me the inspiration for this week’s column. While Kruz, his two-year-old brother, was running from one person to another, taking beach balls, and fighting over the water cannon, Konner spent most of his time alone under a fountain. He did run around quite a bit, but all the time he was pretty much by himself. He really didn’t talk to anyone else in the hour that we were there.

Let’s start with a little background. We know that one of the major issues with Autism is interaction. Children who are autistic are usually socially awkward. This is mostly because they lack the social skills to fit in. They really want to fit in, and they really do want to interact with others. They usually just don’t know how to get started. When they do talk to others they tend to take over the conversation, don’t read the other’s feelings and social cues very well, and talk on and on about one subject (usually what they know the best). These things tend to alienate the other person in the conversation and the situation grows more awkward.

The situation today made me think back to his year in Head Start. This is when I first heard about parallel play. When I observed Konner in the classroom I felt that he was doing great. He would go around the room, find something he wanted to do, and then begin playing. If there were others there I would think, “Cool, he’s playing with others. That’s what we were looking for.” However, I soon found out it was only an illusion. Konner would walk up to others and play, but there was not conversation between the two. If there was it would usually be one-sided. The child might talk to Konner, or try to play with him, but he would not interact with the other child. This is when I was told that it was parallel play.

So what is parallel play? According to the website

Parallel play (or parallel activity) is a term that was introduced by Mildred Parten in 1932 to refer to a developmental stage of social activity in which children play with toys like those the children around them are using but are absorbed in their own activity and usually play beside rather than with one another. Children in this stage may comment on what they are doing or imitate what another child does, but they rarely cooperate in a task or engage in dramatic play or formal games with others.

This is why parallel play is so deceptive. You think things are going well. After all, the only thing you want as a parent of an autistic child is for your kid to play like the others. The problem is that they are not actually playing with them, they are playing like them.

However, Konner has developed, with the help of occupational and speech therapies, and will play with other. It’s not the same as many neurotypical children, but it is getting better.

Another thing that has helped him play with others has been his little brother; although even this comes at a price.

Konner was walking through the house the other day and said to his brother, “Kruz, get your guitar and we’ll start a band.” The two proceeded to play their own music. It was a moment that made me smile. This was actual parallel play that Konner had initiated. After awhile, however, Konner was frustrated with Kruz and hit him. This too made me a little proud because Konner was being a normal child. However, nobody wants to see their child hurt someone, or be hurt.

So what do you do? Well, here are a few tips I found. The first thing is to find out if your child even wants to play with others. Sometimes they just want to be left alone. Anxiety may get the best of them. If they don’t want to, you may not want to push them too hard. However, a little pushing can get them out of their comfort zone and help them.

Interact with them, even with their stims (stimming is the act of self stimulating). I found this one interesting. The article I read on said that if a child likes to spin around to stim himself/herself then you should do the same with them. Show them that you are interested in what they are doing, and why. If they can talk, talk to them about ways to approach other children.

Ask your child if they want to play. If another child seems interested in your autistic kid, your child may not understand that they want to play. Ask them. That sounds a little crazy, but it may not be so easy for your child to pick up on the social cues.

If your child has a special interest you may try to find a club or organization that specializes in this activity. The example given was a horse club for someone who is very interested in horses. After all, the one thing your child likes to talk about the most is probably going to feel right at home with a bunch of others who share that interest and can talk about it all day long.

The main thing is to get involved and try to get your child to play with others. The more they do the better off they’re going to be.

I’m going to close this column with a quote from Temple Grandin from a recent interview: “One of the things about Autistic kids, you have to keep pushing them...just a little bit past their comfort zone to keep them developing."

Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’m just a father who is trying to learn as much about Autism as I can to help my child. I hope that you all can learn from me, and I from you. I ask anyone who has questions or comments about something I have written, or autism, please contact me at I will try to answer questions as I have time, and if I find it interesting enough I may touch on it in my column.

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