[Preface: My son (I’ll refer to him as PJ) was officially diagnosed as autistic two months after his third birthday, although he was receiving early intervention care through the prior year. Before, PJ’s father and I thought that perhaps he was just a late talker, and even upon diagnosis the psychologist assured us that since it’s difficult to accurately test very young children, there was a chance his diagnosis would one day be “reversed.” However, as he grew from a toddler to a child, differences between PJ and his peers became more and more evident.]
There are clearly a few notable differences between the behavior of autistic children and their neurotypical peers, but there is one so-called symptom that really bugs me: The Diagnostic Criteria for Autistic Disorder (see also criteria changes ) Part II/C–Delays or abnormal functioning in symbolic or imaginative play.
At a recent IEP meeting, the teacher stated that PJ had regressed from earlier progress of sharing toys in mutual play. Her complaint was that PJ was now interacting improperly with toys–“holding, shuffling, arranging or stimming with” the toys, rather than actually playing with them.
I once read something from a parent who said he viewed his autistic child as not much different from himself–just with some of the dials turned a little higher, and some a little lower. I relate to this comparison. When I was a child, I knew how to engage in the kind of play that was expected of me when friends came to visit, but it wasn’t how I preferred to play. When I was alone, I would gather my Barbies, simply hold each one, and mentally chart their existence. More than just naming the dolls, I would map their family trees and entire genealogies. I imagined their careers and the professions of their grandparents and the future professions of their offspring. I decided their favorite colors, biggest fears, where they traveled, and what they ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And I designed all their spaces! Without Barbie furniture, I used scraps and bits or non-related toys to represent desks, dishwashers, books, and pans. By the time I felt prepared to act out what I had silently scripted, I was too exhausted and utterly satisfied to actually play with my toys.
To a critical outside observer, I would have appeared only to hold or shuffle my toys–certainly not anything imaginative. The careful planning of my Barbies’ homes, malls, and churches would have seemed a preoccupation with arranging insignificant items, and my desire not to be interrupted could have been taken as an abnormal response to social interaction (DSM:II/A). If anyone had cared to ask me what I was doing, I would have had the verbal communication skills to explain it to them. My son PJ would not.
Autistic children have special needs, but they also have the same needs as every other child. We must presume competence–not just for children, but for autistic adults as well, regardless of their ability to communicate. We all are more than the tally of diagnostic results that are measured by us or against us.