By Richard Solomon, MD & Onna Solomon, LMSW
Why is pretend play so important and how does it lead to social skills in children with autism? Here is the logic: 1) Pretend play engages the child’s imagination. 2) Imagination is the key to empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. 3) Empathy is the foundation of meaningful relationships.
William Blake (1757-1827), one of the great poets of the romantic era (“The Songs of Innocence and Experience”), knew intuitively what the brain researchers have discovered when he said: “Imagination is the Divine Body in every Man.” He recognized the capacity to imagine as THE unique and vital creative force within every human being.
While many behavioral autism interventions place more emphasis on basic social skills like greetings and following directions, The PLAY Project Autism Intervention Program focuses on imaginative pretend play as an essential skill for true social connection and meaningful relationships.
In our program, we recognize that a child must pass through a series of imagination stages as they mature. There are 3 stages of imaginative pretend play in early childhood. Typical children achieve these stages by age 4 to 5 years of age. For children with ASD these stages are often delayed, but they will unfold developmentally as a source of joy and fun when the child with ASD is ready. The 3 stages are:
1.) Imitative Pretend (18 months in typical children): This includes putting a bottle to a baby doll’s mouth in imitation of mommy feeding the new baby, or putting a phone to an ear in imitation of daddy talking on the phone.
2.) One-thematic Pretend (2 years in typical children): For example, feeding a puppet pretend foods; the monster (daddy) who is coming to get you; pushing a dolly in a stroller; or driving little cars around while going “zoom, zoom.”
3.) Two-thematic Pretend (3 years in typical children): This type of play has a story—going to the doctor to get better, having a tea party with a whole group of stuffed animals, or playing good guys and bad guys.
These stages, this Blakean capacity for imagination, leads to the essential social skill—considering someone else’s perspective. We must be able to imagine what others are thinking by “reading” their tone of voice and interpreting (through an act of imagination) their facial gestures. We understand (by an act of imagination) that others have feelings and a personal history.
By the time a typical child is 5, they can play in a socially sophisticated way with their peers. They greet their peers with a high fives or hugs; they make small talk (“I got new shoes”), they share personal information (“I got a new baby sister”). They learn to take turns and share. They find out what is fun and funny to their peers. In short, typical children consider others and take others’ perspectives by using their imaginative capacities which leads to friendship, the ultimate social achievement.
Is this capacity to be social and make friends imaginable for children with ASD? It is! Children with autism have the potential within their brains to be creative, self-aware, empathic, and highly social. We have seen it many times. Sad to say, we have also seen too many children with ASD who were never even given the chance to become imaginative because it wasn’t emphasized in their therapeutic program.
Kim Rust, a parent and Certified The PLAY Project Consultant, recently shared this story about her own son’s ability to reflect, share his feelings, and make deep connections:
You probably remember that we did PLAY with Quinn starting around the age of three, and we still engage him all the time using PLAY techniques. He will be six in February, and he is doing well in kindergarten. But even more wonderful for me is what he said yesterday. At breakfast, we were talking about what we were thankful for. His first response was, “Playing video games with Daddy,” which isn’t too surprising—Minecraft, Portal, etc. are great bonding for them. But a minute later he says, “And guess what Mommy?” I looked up from my breakfast, and he looked right at me, pointed, and he said, “I’m grateful for you.” I actually got tears in my eyes. I am sure you know, from working with families, how much things like that mean. I feel like he has done so amazing, and I really credit PLAY Project. I just wanted to say thank you.