Monday, February 28, 2011

The boy who doesn't play with toys

Playing with toys is an integral part of childhood. It’s never been that simple at our house. Monkey doesn’t really play with toys, and looking back I realize he never really did.
When he was little he only played with toys to illicit some sort of response from them. The only ones he enjoyed were electronic in some form, often emitting a way-too-loud, obnoxious noise or tune. He would push the buttons repetitively to hear the same sounds over and over until I was ready to throw the toy out the window. Often, he would run the batteries out of juice in mere days. We used to spend obscene amounts of money on batteries until we finally wised up and decided to let the batteries die and stay dead.
Even though he didn't talk much, we would hear him mimic the various toy sounds all the time. It drove us nuts, but we were happy that he was happy. Of course, we didn’t know what echolalia was back then. He was our first child, and we didn’t understand that his type of play was not considered typical. His intensely sound-driven play got to be pervasive and unbearable at times. I had to ask the family to no longer buy any gifts that required batteries or made any sounds at all. Any contraband toys we received were re-gifted to another family who could use them or else given to charity.
There was another way that he played with toys that wasn’t typical. I have lots of pictures of Monkey lining up his toys across the living room and down the hall. He was meticulous about making everything perfect. Titan and I would run around with the camera, ecstatic with his attention to detail, capturing how amazing our little boy was. We thought this kind of play was revealing his gifted intellect.
Along the same lines, Monkey used to stack wooden blocks and interlocking Megablocks into tall, singular towers as high as he could reach. He would climb onto the coffee table and continue stacking them as high as possible, taking much time and effort to do so. Then, when Titan got home from work, Monkey would get help to make the tower even taller. I have pictures of Titan holding Monkey in his arms as they worked diligently to make the tower climb even higher without knocking it over. We were so proud!
We had no idea that all of these forms of play were signs of autism. We continue to be proud of our son and see some wonderful gifts in him, but we also understand him better now. Diagnosis helped us connect the dots of all of his quirks, talents, and areas of struggle.
Monkey is now 8 years old, and his favorite toys are still all electronic. They include the Wii, DS, MP3 player, and the computer. (Just a little note here: He has to earn these toys! I don’t just let him play with them carte blanche.) The only other things I see him do regularly on his own are to read books and play board games. There are gobs of toys all over the house. Many of the toys were purchased specifically for Monkey. But, he doesn’t play with them. The toys just sit and collect dust. I’ve spent a lot of money on enriching, non-electronic toys that never get played with.
Even though I know this about my son, I do find it frustrating when Monkey wanders around the house looking for something to do and never once considers playing with toys. Whenever he’s lost his privileges to play with electronics, I can guarantee there will be some upset from his little brother. Due to his boredom, Monkey will immediately find ways to irritate Prince Charming, who is usually found happily playing with his trains.
Monkey will come into the room and begin knocking over the train cars, scattering them off of the tracks. When I hear screaming from Prince Charming on these days, I know exactly what happened. I intervene and try to help him understand why what he just did to his little brother was wrong. He seems to listen, but the moment I turn around to walk out of the room, it happens again. Nine times out of ten, I will end up having to segregate Monkey into another portion of the house, or into his room, so that he doesn’t continue to bother his brother. When I make suggestions on things he could do (besides torment his brother) or other toys he could play with, he whines and complains.  
Removing Monkey from the same room as his brother doesn’t help either of them learn how to play appropriately with others, but sometimes it’s the only thing I can do. Things escalate so quickly between them and I can’t always be right there, moderating every action and word. Looking on the bright side, Monkey didn’t want to have anything to do with Prince Charming for almost the first two years of his little life. We’re finally getting into some typical brotherly behavior here, so I choose to look at this a step in the right direction.  
We’ve discovered that Monkey has quite the knack for writing stories and creating his own customized board games. If his electronics are off-limits, then I offer up construction paper and a writing tablet, suggesting he write a new story or letter to his teacher, draw a picture, or make some new cards for his Monkey Monopoly game. All I can do is support Monkey the best way I know how, and provide him with lots of options for play and for seeking appropriate attention. He’s a boy who doesn’t like to play with toys. And, that’s okay.
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