One of the things that brings out feelings of sadness for me about Ben’s condition, strangely, is going into a toy store. I find myself attracted to all the toys and activities that I would like to do with Ben and imagining an idealized picture of how we should play together. Each of these little fantasies only serves to remind me of Ben’s narrow repertoire of play, a function of his need for sameness and predictability.
A stroll down the aisles of a toy store feels, at times, like an exercise in futility.
Lincoln Logs, Legos, Tinker Toys? He doesn’t enjoy building structures – only watching me build them so he can knock them down with various vehicles.
A set of dishes for playing restaurant or tea party? A set of finger puppets? His pretend play consists of re-enacting stories from books and videos he already knows. Unless I can introduce something as a prop in an existing script, it may as well not exist.
Art supplies for drawing and crafts projects? His deficits in fine motor skills mean that these activities are hard, and hence, not fun. He usually refuses my attempts to get him involved in any art project.
Board games and card games? The concepts of turn taking and rules of play haven't taken root in his brain, and in a matter of minutes the game pieces end up scattered and discarded.
A croquet set? Badminton? His preference for indoor play makes initiating outdoor activities like pulling teeth. Lack of gross motor coordination when it comes to catching, throwing and hitting doesn’t help, and most of these things involve more turn-taking and rule-following.
I find his narrow range of activities frustrating. And being in a toy store only tends to exaggerate my perception of how Ben spends his time at home:
But the futility I feel is really about me, not Ben. I end up wandering through toy stores wishing for a different kind of kid. A kid who will indulge my idealized notions of parenthood rather than trouncing them. The kind of kid that I believe every other parent has, but that actually does not really exist.
The toy industry, no doubt, is bonkers about our demographic: a child obsessed with one kind of toy such that he will consume any variation of it that is put on store shelves, combined with a parent who simultaneously wants to make the child happy by feeding the obsession and is desperate to find any other kind of toy that will displace the obsession. The trap is set to just keep us buying more and more stuff.
I think that the key to making that narrow sliver of “other” bigger is not new stuff but maybe just changing the routine. When Ben is at school or in a new environment, he is much more adventurous and tends to explore things he would not show an interest in at home. He often branches out by following the lead of other kids, especially those with whom he has close relationships, like his cousins.
At home on Christmas morning, Ben virtually ignored a new, shiny, red tricycle in favor of three small freight cars for his railroad empire. It was not what I had imagined when we decided to buy the tricycle, expecting it to trump all other gifts with joy-bringing Christmas magic.
But later at my mother-in-law’s house, the most popular toy of the day was a 99 cent plastic slinky that he and his cousin used – independent of any parental suggestions or expectations - to invent the most awesome springy game of tug-o-war.
Friendship + found objects - expectations = fun.