I watch The Boy in fascination. "Down by station, early in the morning..." he sings. The first lines are the only ones I recognize and remember. (The Husband sent me the lyrics last week, I will have to memorize them so we can all sing together.) The Boy sings in a high pitched voice and the rest of his words are mumbled. Since The Boy's been talking more, trying harder to communicate, I always feel guilty when he says something I can't understand.
He is singing and playing with his trains. Setting up the tracks, attaching the bridge, connecting it to the tunnel. I am always amazed that he always creates the tracks in different and complex patterns. When he's finished, he lines up the trains and starts pulling them through his pretend Thomas the Train world. Calling each train by their proper name - Bertie, James, Gordon, Toby - engaging in pretend play. He creates dialogue between the trains. Most of it scripted - a combination of lines memorized from books and cartoons - though he's using the lines appropriately, as if recreating a story line. While scripting may be considered a self-stimulating behavior, I allow The Boy to continue since the elements of pretend play are there. I sit with him and incorporate my own dialogue with the characters so that we are sitting and pretending together.
When The Boy was diagnosed with autism at 2 1/2 years old, he had no language and the developmental pediatrician said he had no imaginative play skills. As a writer, to hear that my son lacked imagination seemed ironic and almost cruel. I had such a vivid imagination, I wanted to build a career on it. The Husband is a photographer and comic book fanatic. How do two creative individuals produce a child with no imagination? One of the joys of childhood is the limitless possibilities of pretend play; where the mind can go anywhere, before the grim reality of life sets in.
However, for all of my imagination, I never realized that pretend can be taught. Through intense center based and home based therapies (ABA, Floortime, TEACHH, SEIT, Speech, OT and PT), The Boy has learned to imagine and to understand the concept of pretend.
The Boy loves his rocket ship tent and together we count down from 10 and then he says "Blast Off!" The Husband shakes the tent. The Boy giggles and I watch as he squeezes his eyes. I wonder what he sees. I imagine he sees himself rising above the clouds, floating in outer space. He giggles some more and screams, "Again, Daddy! Again! It's time to blast off!" The Boy's eyes open again, and they are bright, glistening with excitement and joy. He walks out of the tent, looks The Husband in the eye and makes his request again. But before counting down, The Boy grabs his Buzz Lightyear action figure, so they can journey into space together.
We read books that introduce creativity and imagination like Harold and the Purple Crayon, Tar Beach and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. I encourage him to make up his own stories, using the books he loves as models. I'll begin with, "If you give a Boy a piece of gum." The Boy will say, "He will ask for some juice." It doesn't always make sense, but it's a foundation. We are communicating, taking turns, having a conversation, he looks me in the eye.
I like to imagine that The Boy will be a writer or some kind of storyteller. One day, we may be reading his blog or a book that he's written. And in that book or blog, he will introduce the world only he knows. And we will be awe - because it's a world no one else could have imagined. There was a time, when I couldn't have seen this. Just as The Boy needed to learn the concept of pretend play, I needed The Boy to restore my sense of imagination.