I often read that this is because children on the spectrum tend be very concrete and literal. The way I like to put it is that Ben seems to have difficulty with imaginative play because of his insistence on verisimilitude.
I did not hit upon this fancy term myself. Rather, a smartypants Ph.D. friend of mine used it to describe his nephew who, at 7, was into genealogical research and had always loved toy cars more than people. My friend described how his nephew (with no formal diagnosis) would get very frustrated when a door on a toy car would not open, when the door was merely suggestive of a door rather than an actual door. “He seems to have a need for verisimilitude,” said my friend, and this struck a chord with me.
Instead of doing regular imaginative play like most kids – inventing storylines that may or may not hang together logically but provide opportunities to interact, run around, occasionally hit each other - Ben recreates stories he has memorized.
It started with him just reciting the stories as part of the phenomenon of delayed echolalia. He would walk around the house or play with toys and recite, word-for word, stories from memory.
He would also precisely re-enact videos of himself. Chris has a video blog that features Ben heavily, and it includes this one that shows an original video side-by-side with Ben’s re-enactment. The comparisons to Sunset Boulevard were inevitable and we wondered if we had a megalomaniac actor on our hands.
In the past year, he’s begun to understand more of the meaning of a story and connect it to real life. So instead of just reciting “Toby and the Flood” from the Thomas the Tank Engine cannon, he uses his trains to act it out. He will tell me, for example, “I want to make a waterfall for Toby,” and I’ll go around the house coming up with objects - in this case a box and a tie dyed scarf - that are stand-ins for a waterfall.
Then he’ll ask me to make a river, and a dam, then get a rope for Harold, then… you get the idea. He is pretending, but he’s really recreating the story. Moreover he will occasionally get frustrated to the point of throwing things and freaking out when the desired effect - or verisimilitude - cannot be produced.
He recently threw himself on the pavement in a parking lot because I would not let him roll under the car like Woody and Buzz do in a scene from Toy Story.
He once picked up his train track and scattered it across the room when a snowplow I had carefully fashioned out of play dough for one of his engines would not stay on when said engine attempted to plow a pile of snow, or rather, a white dishtowel.
He has collapsed into scratching and hitting when I informed him we could not create an actual mud puddle in the middle of his bedroom for him (as Christopher Robin) and Pooh to jump into.
This tendency is odd, but also quite terrifying when I wonder if he will someday throw himself out of a window or bolt across the street in the interest of re-enacting part of a movie.
But, as always, there is hope.
Recently, we were acting out the book Chrysanthemum in his room right before bedtime. There’s a line that says, “She loved the way [her name] sounded when it was written in ink on an envelope.”
“I want an envelope.” Ben told me.
Normally, I would have indulged this request and gotten and envelope and written Chrysanthemum on it so he could satisfy his need for freaking verisimilitude. But I was exhausted, so I did what every other normal parent of a normal kid does: pretended to give him an envelope by pantomiming the action. “Here’s an envelope,” I said, reaching a hand out to him, expecting an insistent whine.
He took it.
He took the pretend envelope and continued with the story, happily holding his imaginary object.
Now I regularly see him imagining as part of his story acting. The script is still exact, but he’s willing to imagine the details and act them out himself rather than require high-fidelity stand-ins.
In fact, the other night he lined his stuffed animals up on his bed and played school. “Hi children. I’m Kelsy!” Ben announced. He conducted circle time, pantomiming his teacher’s use of a wand to point to the picture schedule. He asked his teddy bear to report on the weather and sent another plush toy out of the room to speech therapy or rather “Ann’s class.”
I sat back and watched with amazement as this went on for several minutes and then happened again – in even more vivid detail – the next night. “You be Vivian,” (the assistant teacher) he instructed.
This idea that I can be Vivian without actually BEING Vivian is a huge step for him. One that happens naturally for most kids, and one that passes by for most parents without the added bonus of overwhelming, awestruck joy.