|The Play is the Thing*
Children learn by playing, by trying on and taking on roles; it's how they come to understand themselves and the world in which they live. Play is the outward manifestation of each child’s inner life. It contains the conflicts they are attempting to resolve and the challenges they are trying to master. Play is serious business.
Pretend play is the foundation of abstract thinking. It reflects the capacity to symbolize and act on ideas. What is hypothesizing but creating a scenario in your head and testing out the possibilities? Effective problem solving cannot occur without the building block of play.
Play is intrinsically relational. It is the meshing of at least two worlds and involves reciprocity, negotiation, compromises, and at times, heated debates. It is at its heart, collaborative.
During childhood, people on the spectrum often have difficulty playing with others. Whether it is the unpredictability of other children, sensory overload, or restricted interests, kids with ASD often wind up playing by themselves. They also have limitations in some of the basic skills (reciprocity, flexibility, imaginative thinking) that might draw kids to them. We then have a real Catch-22: Kids on the spectrum need to play to develop social capacities and problem-solving abilities, but are kept from this experience due to their lack of basic play skills.
Flash to 5, 10, 20 years into the future and the teen or adult with ASD may be isolated from others due to these social challenges. It is my belief that it is never too late to learn how to play and that the modality of drama can provide a safe forum for teens and adults to gain these skills. Participation in drama allows kids, teens and adults with ASD to achieve developmental milestones that were not met previously. These milestones include social reciprocity, complex problem solving, and symbolizing ideas.** Drama provides a dynamic learning environment that is non-intimidating and yes, fun!
Folks on the spectrum struggle with social skills. Most of the time, social skills groups deliver information through a verbal format. As people with ASD, often have difficulty with auditory processing, this information may not be readily absorbed. It is my belief that if the social issues are addressed developmentally and in action (i.e. visually, kinesthetically), that what we call social skills, actually do improve. Most importantly, we don’t gravitate towards someone because he/she has great “social skills”, we enjoy someone’s company if they are able to engage us, listen well and make us laugh. These qualities represent the essence of what participation in drama seeks to promote.
*This blog first appeared in the Autistry April 2011 newsletter with the support of Janet Lawson and Dan Swearingen.
** Informed by the work of Stanley Greenspan