by Dawn Marcotte
My daughter tore the wrapping paper off the box in excitement, and because it is fun to tear things.
When she opened the box she pulled out the puppets, tossed them aside and climbed into the box.
After all that was the best part of the birthday present anyway right?
I quickly thanked my brother and his wife for the lovely gift of a puppet theatre and promised them photos later of her playing with them. But right now she was happy in the box and it was probably a good idea to just let her be there.
I could tell they were a little confused, but they didn't press the issue. After all, their kids had enjoyed many hours playing with the puppets at the young age of 6 and they fully expected A. would too. I didn't have the heart to tell them that my daughter would not have the first idea of what to do with the puppets, never mind they were made of scratchy fabric and I doubted she would ever be comfortable putting them on her hands.
My daughter didn't really do imaginative play. She was more of an outside girl who loved to run and climb and build and destroy.
Dolls were not terribly interesting and she didn't seem to understand the concept of 'playing pretend' with them or with the kids in the neighborhood. We would occasionally play with cars and trucks in the sandbox, but each truck had a designated purpose and that is what we did with them, dig, dump and push.
Books and Stuffed Animals
She loves books though and would spend hours with us reading to her. Then one day I was feeling particularly silly and instead of reading her favorite story to her I got a couple of her stuffed animals and made them act it out for her. I don't even remember what the story was, just the look on her face as she giggled at her crazy mother.
Then I did it again the next night, because it was fun and I was getting tired of reading the same books over and over again. (In our house if you do any task the same way 3 times it becomes a pattern and you can't change it) On the third night I didn't play with the stuffed animals because I knew I wouldn't want to do it that way all the time and we went back to reading the normal way.
But my silly-self had planted a creative seed in her head. It was possible to act out the stories she loved in her books with her stuffed animals. Thus was born a true storyteller.
After that I would occasionally act out the stories with stuffed animals as a way to do something a little different and to try and get her to learn a new way to play. I would even pull out those neglected puppets if the characters were right for the story. Then I started to encourage her to do the same thing.
At first she would only act out the stories as I read them. But whenever I needed a few moments to myself to do something I would suggest she 'show' me a story with her stuffed animals, after all she knew them by heart. She would sometimes go along with it and use stuffed animals and recite her favorite story to me. Sometimes she wasn't interested at all.
Eventually she started to act out stories on her own, saying the words, since she memorized everything she heard anyway. I think it was comforting to her to hear familiar phrases repeated. I also encouraged her to 'show' her little sister the stories with her stuffed animals. After all a baby can't sit and look at a book, but she will watch her sister walk big fuzzy animals around in front of her.
Finally A. started to make up her own stories to go with her favorite characters - though that didn't happen for several years and she was coached by her little sister a bit, who was now a toddler and loved to do anything with her adored big sister.
Our younger daughter is NT (neurotypical) and has always gotten along great with her big sister. In many ways she has been more of a help coaching A. than anyone else in the family, because she could explain to her sister in 'child speak' what it was these grown-ups were trying to get her to do. Learning to play creatively was no exception. She patiently showed her sister that they could make up stories and act them out with the stuffed animals.
Then it happened.
Finally after almost 3 years of sitting in the closet, the puppets came out to play. Now almost every day I was the preferred audience for a new production. The girls quickly went from telling familiar fairy tales to making up their own stories. It didn’t always make sense, but it was fun anyway. Then they moved back to stuffed animals, because there was a much wider variety of animals to choose from and therefore a wider range of stories that could be told.
I still have video I took of stories they made up together and then acted out. My favorite part is the sound of their laughter as they try to get through the silly production.
I am proud to say that A. has such a good imagination now that she wants to be a professional writer for her career. I think she just might do it too.
We never would have gotten there without her love of reading and books. By connecting the stories in the books to physical objects in her world she began to understand creative play. She learned that the written word was only one way to represent a story.
This method can be used by any parent. Just pick out a few of your child's favorite stuffed animals and show them the story instead of just reading it to them.
Plant a seed of creativity and watch it grow over time.
-- Dawn Marcotte is the CEO of www.asd-dr.com, a website designed to help teens and young adults on the spectrum live to their highest potential.