I refused to give up I because I knew it was somewhere. “It” was a bag of wooden toy blocks tucked away and long since forgotten with two teenagers and a preteen in the house. My best friend’s 1 year old was coming to play and as her "auntie", I was determined to have a fun playdate and that meant finding the missing bag of blocks among the forgotten dolls, dinosaurs and Legos.
Then, finally, I saw the purple handle sticking out from under a pile of mittens that my teenage wannabe drops on the floor due to her 8th percentile height that leaves her unable to reach the mitten bin on the top shelf. I pulled it out, scraped off the dog hair and dust bunnies (sorry sweet Peaches) and relished in my victory and dogged determination at my discovery. I put the bag with the other toys I dug out (literally) and finally went to bed.
The next day, when my friend’s beautiful girl came to play, I was ready. At first her inquisitive eyes and grabby little hands were set on the various toys that lit up and made noises. She went from item to item pushing buttons and clapping each time she pushed the magic button, so proud at her amazing discoveries. My goodness she is a delight!
As toddlers are wont to do, she quickly left any and all toys behind and went to the cabinets and drawers in the kitchen. Since my days of child proofing are long gone, I wanted to distract her with something that would not poison her. "The blocks!"
I quickly went to the bag and dumped the blocks on the floor as I sang out her name. I had no idea the impact those scattered blocks all over my family room floor would have on me. In an instant, a long forgotten memory that was tucked as far away in the darkness of my brain as the blocks were in our hall closet, hit me. Hard.
The benign wooden blocks, in various colors and shapes scattered among the light up toys, took me back 12 years. There in my memory, along with the blocks, was my son, aged 3, on the floor playing. Unlike my bestie’s daughter, he was not picking up the blocks and making sweet block music, nor was he crashing down each and every tower I built, instead he was rolling all over the blocks that lay scattered on the floor.
Ryan would scatter the blocks on the carpet, almost making a trail of blocks, then he would roll on top of the blocks from one end of the pile to the other, seeking sensory input that his body was unable to receive in the way you and I can. From the sharp, pointy triangles, to the smooth half-moon circles, Ryan did not discriminate. Each block provided different sensory sensations to his body, and by the giggles and smiles it was clear that those sharp and smooth edges felt glorious.
At first I thought it was funny, but, the more I watched him, the more it worried me. I knew this was not "normal". I remember trying to redirect him. "Ryan, look what Mommy built!" "Do you want to knock it down?" But, my son, who at times appeared deaf to his name, just continued to roll away. Not caring at all about what was the "right" or “normal” way to play with wooden blocks, Ryan found his way, and his was was “right” for him.
My revere was broken when my bestie's daughter yelled, “wooo” as the next block tower crashed to the ground while she clapped happily at this fun game of cause and effect. Then she picked up two blocks and clacked them together (blocks are quite musical). While she enjoyed her musical blocks, I built another tower and waited, and sure enough, CRASH, she toppled the blocks to the ground again. As I applauded her victory, in what I once believed was the “right” way to play with blocks, I longed for the chance to go back in time with my young son and roll over those blocks letting him know that his way was “right” too.
Yeah, I know, beating myself over the head with a bag of blocks isn’t going to change what was, but, those blocks acted as a reminder to allow my son to “play” in a way that is comfortable for him. For example, my suggestion to have an end of the year pool party for the cast in the musical as a way to increase his social opportunities, may seem “right” to me, but, it clearly does not seem “right” to him. He has no plans of playing that way. There are other ways to engage him socially without making him feel nervous and overwhelmed.
As a parent loving a child with autism, there is a fine line between showing your child what is “typical” and making them feel and be someone they are not. Just like I crossed the line with those stupid blocks all those years ago, I know I have crossed it many, many more times since then. I hope that my son knows that just like blocks don’t come with instructions on how to play “right”, parenting doesn’t come with instructions either and sometimes we get it wrong.
Over the years, my son and I have taught each other how to play and neither way is “right”, sometimes, how we play is just different. My bestie’s beautiful girl may have played with the blocks just like I expected her to, however, when she climbed on top of the little toy table (which I also found in the bowels of my basement) that I set out for us to color on, I couldn't help but smile at the irony. This adorable neurotypical toddler did not play with the table "right", after all, tables aren't for standing on, however, climbing on top of that table felt “right” to this little daredevil more than scribbling with a tasty crayon she'd preferred to chew on than draw with. And in her mind, and mine, she was not wrong.
"Play: engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose."
Yep. Guess I missed that twelve years ago.