Jule Epp

Walls & Windows


Reflections on Autism & Play

Let’s begin with some snapshots:

A 2.5-year-old cherub-like boy sitting for hours in the corner with a far-away look in his eyes, licking on a wooden block.

A 3-year-old boy with eyes full of granite defiance, walking on tippy-toes and flipping the light switches on and off, on and off.

A 4-year-old boy with a luscious head of curls running up and down the hallway all day long, wild-eyed and screeching.

A 6-year-old boy entranced by his inner world, sitting at his desk, talking and laughing to himself.

A 10-year-old girl sweetly repeating the same question in the same tone of voice over and over again to anyone she meets.

A 16-year-old girl tightly holding onto her toy dragon, not letting anyone close lest they touch it.

Imagine being a mother, a father, a therapist. Imagine wanting to connect with these children. Imagine trying it yourself. What do you think you will encounter? Do you imagine you will run into walls? Barriers? Closed doors? Or do you imagine you will find windows? Do you see some windows for connection right now? I see the windows. I see them clearly. And the reason I do, is because I am wearing my play glasses.

Play, you might ask? How can you possibly think of play?! Do you not see the seriousness of the state these children are in? Do you not see their isolation? Do you not feel your obligation to DO something? We can’t afford to waste time here! We can’t afford to be thinking of something as frivolous as play!

Ah, I would answer to that, I believe I have a window for you: Let me tell you about play.

Play is that special state of consciousness that allows us to say and do and feel things we might otherwise not risk saying and doing and feeling. It is a bubble of safety for when the real world is not safe. Within this safety, play also opens a world of potential and possibility that makes us sparkle and moves us to explore. Here we find the impulse to venture forth into new frontiers, the motor of development. These functions of play have been with us from the beginnings of our species. Play is primal and instinctive, seeped in evolutionary wisdom. It is nature’s answer for when things are somehow not working for us – when it is not even clear how things COULD work for us. Play is for those times when we hit a wall.

Standing with our faces pressed up against a wall, we can no longer see alternatives. We just see a flat, impenetrable world in front of us with no room to move, to explore, to grow, to be. We are stuck in a tight place, in a broken record. The way forward is barred us. And so, we need a workaround. We need some kind of window. Play is that window. Play lifts us out of the ruts that lead us to banging into our walls over and over and over again. Play offers a new horizon, where the eyes come alive and see unexpected ways over, under, and around the wall. Play gives us the safety to risk trying. So play is anything but frivolous. It is our way out when all other doors are closed.

Fine and good, you may say. Let us for the sake of argument assume that what you say about play is true. True for you and me. True for other children. But not for THESE children. THESE children are different. THESE children are not able to play. We have no alternative with THESE children except to train them, teach them, mold them, shape them. There’s no other way through with THESE children!

And I would have to argue with you here. I see you are staring at a wall, I would say. Let’s see if I can open another window:

A 2.5-year-old cherub-boy sitting for hours in the corner with a far-away look in his eyes, licking on a wooden block. I sit beside him and pick up a block. When he licks his block, I lick mine – exactly the way he does it. After a short time, he notices me. His eyes awaken. He tests me by slowly raising the block and watching if I do it exactly as he does. He puts it slowly in his mouth. I do the same. He smiles. He understands. We make eye contact. The game begins…

A 3-year-old boy with eyes full of granite defiance, walking on tippy-toes and flipping the light switches on and off, on and off. I walk up to the light switch with him and flip it after him. Then, with a look of feigned surprise on my face, I flip the switch before him. He flips it after me and laughs, defiance melting from his face. I flip the switch again and when he reaches to do the same, I stop him, playfully, and tickle him instead. Now when he reaches for the switch, he is waiting to see if I will tickle him again. We laugh. We are connected. The play is on…

A 4-year-old boy with a luscious head of curls running up and down the hallway all day long, wild-eyed and screeching. I join him. We run together up and down the hallway. We run for a long time. When he stops to catch his breath, I stop. When he begins to run again, I run. He is now no longer screeching, he is laughing. His eyes are not darting wildly back and forth. He is watching me, watching to see if I will follow him. So I hide behind the door. He comes looking for me. When he nears, I jump out towards him. He squeals with delight and runs away. We are now in the back-and-forth of playing hide and seek…

And the stories go on…

These children most surely wanted to play and they most surely wanted to play with me. But they were caught in a broken record, a short-circuit resulting from a brain threateningly overloaded with too much input. These children were facing a wall and needed someone to help them open a window. What do these windows look like? A wooden block, a light switch, running. Each of these children had THEIR window. Not just any window. But the one that fits to their world. The one that feels familiar and safe enough for them. It may not be the same window tomorrow, but there is always some kind of window. And when you find it, it may not stay open for very long – an open window is exposing, vulnerable. But as long as the window dares to be open, we will see sparkle, movement, development, connection.

It is inside the play-bubble that these children experience the back-and-forth of social interaction naturally, willingly, delightfully. Inside the play-bubble, relationships with us can form and deepen and evolve. Is the child learning about social interaction in play? Surely, but there is no teaching going on here. The child is exploring, expanding, relating – because the child WANTS to, because we have found THEIR window to enter play with us. We have found their workaround. And it is fun! Lots of fun! This certainly isn’t work in the usual sense. But this is the opposite of frivolous as much as it is the opposite of training. This is nature’s stage for the spontaneous unfolding of individual potential. It is so for all of us. It is equally so for our autistic children. And we can make this stage available to them.

So… Let’s see what it is like to go back to our snapshots.

Can you see the windows now? How might you now approach these children? What about our 16-year-old girl with her dragon? How might you connect with her? Have you found her window? Do you have some ideas about how to get into the play-bubble with her? In the past, you might have had the impulse to get her to put her dragon away, to make her stop. She is already 16-years-old, you might have pointed out. And she is so focussed on her dragon she won’t pay attention to anyone else, you might have added! Would you follow that impulse to “make her stop” now that you have your play glasses on? Or would you recognize the window and instead ask her about her dragon? Might you find ways to help her protect her dragon? Might you even talk to her dragon, get to know him, be friends with him? Might you write stories with her about her dragon? Might you join her with your own dragon? I wonder what it is you will come up with when you have your play glasses on… there are lots of possibilities! If you continue in this way, soon, the sparkle in your eyes will become contagious, as sparkles do. Her eyes will begin to sparkle with you as you bypass her wall and jump with her through HER window into HER world of play.

That’s what I did. And it was the beginning of an incredible journey with her - exploring, expanding, relating… by playing.

Jule Epp©2020