Friday, July 31, 2009

Imagination / Perseveration

We recently went to a birthday party for one of Ben's classmates at Pump it Up.

And as every parent of a child under ten who lives in the Bay Area knows, I'm not talking about an Elvis Costello song or an early-nineties SNL sketch.

I'm referring to Pump it Up "the inflatable party zone," an ingenious franchise that converts ex-warehouse space into great, windowless kid casinos filled with various types of gigantic inflatable structures.

They are enormously popular for birthday parties and kids love jumping through obstacle courses, sliding down giant slides and bouncing around like crazy for 90 minutes before being herded to a side room for pizza and cake so the next party can start bouncing.

Being at Pump it Up is the closest a five year old comes to being at a rave. It's a whirl of motion and sound, chaotic and very loud. They always seem to be blasting 80s pop, as if the teenagers who work there are trying to pick an appropriate playlist for the mostly white, 40ish parents.

Despite the sensory overload, and perhaps because of it, Ben loves Pump it Up.

Ben on slide.jpg

The last time we were there, I observed something interesting about one of the ways he copes with environments like this that can be just a little bit too much fun.

Here's how it all went down:

10:00 a.m.

Arrival. Ben happily and confidently runs off with a pack of NT classmates who are circulating amongst the inflatable structures in the first room. (Yes, there are TWO rooms at Pump it Up.) He's barely checking to see where I am. He's laughing and shouting to his friends, having a great time.

Ben and a few other boys joyfully improvise a game that seems to combine keep-away and dodge ball. One mom asks me about Ben's "special school" and I try to explain about Asperger's and social deficits. I detect a look of incredulity on her face as she glances over at him.

Ben close up.jpg

10:30 a.m.

Now Ben's attention shifts to me. "Come with me, Mommy!" and we're off, over the obstacle course together and down the slide. He wants to incorporate some version of The Little Mermaid into the jumpy house experience. He's still aware of the other kids, but very focused on me and our story. The jumpy house is really a ship being tossed by a storm.

It's all very exciting.

11:00 a.m.

Thirty minutes until pizza and cake and now Ben's imaginative play has changed into something different.

He's still thinking about The Little Mermaid, but instead of acting it out, he is insisting - with a degree of panic - that I recite the lines of various characters with him. All the while are were going up the stairs of a giant slide and sliding down, over and over and over.

"Can you be Ursula?" "Can you be Eric?" "Can you be Ariel?" He's feeding me my lines, shouting back at me as we climb up the bouncy staircase. This gigantic, ridiculous slide is no more than a route we're taking on a walk together, rather than the entertainment itself.

I'm exhausted, a little anxious. I keep looking at my watch, listening over the Hall and Oates song on the speakers for the whistle that means it's finally time for pizza.


Reflecting on what happened, I think that when stimulation built up to the point of overload, Ben's imagination turned into perseveration: a way for him to shut out some of what was coming in and exert some control over his experience. And he was enlisting me in this version of stimming.

I've seen him do this before, many times. But seeing him go from at ease and engaged to rigid and demanding allowed me to see it much more clearly.

Ben's ability to engage in imaginative play is a huge and somewhat unusual strength. He seems to defy clinical literature that suggests that individuals with ASD:
"demonstrate little or no imaginative play...and present deficits in spontaneous imaginative creativity and pretend play."

To the contrary, Ben loves imaginative play and is good at it - albeit, a bit idiosyncratic at times.

But when imaginative play becomes a way to escape from the world rather than engage with it, is it still creative and expressive? Is it still play? Or has it become stereotyped, repetitive behavior?

And does it matter?

We all resort to things that give us comfort and make us feel in control when we are overwhelmed. I eat carbohydrates and make lists. Ben's self-calming strategy is narrative.

From the time he was tiny, he would lose himself in books, recite long stories by heart the way some people sing to themselves, and he now makes up his own elaborately constructed tales of trains and knights and various Disney mashups, or furnishes improvised narration during a movie.

And whenever he's telling stories, or reading them, or listening to them, or watching them, you can probably bet that he is calm and happy.

So in these situations when he demands that we script together, I think Ben is saying to me:

"I need to go somewhere else right now. Let's escape from here."

"Let's create our own world where I know what you'll say and where I'll decide what will happen next."

"Let's be Ariel. Let's be Eric. Let's be Ursula."

"Tell me the story."

"Tell me the story."

"Tell me the story."

Mommy and Ben.jpg


jaki said...

Another wonderful glimpse into Ben's world.... thank you!

Drama Mama said...

I've often thought the same thing about the imagination/perseveration thing. Many of my students fall along the spectrum (undiagnosed, but I can usually detect a bit o' the spec) and I find that it greatly centers them; structures their social time; and ultimately, gives me a lot to work with in terms of a direction.

i just have to shake it up a bit. Rearrange the script.

i like ben's style.

p.s. miss m went from echolalia to sort of mitigated echolalia to this pretend-play thing,too.

she has a great imagination, and, from what i can see, was studying inflection and expression by using doing this sort of exercise. it's gone from robotic to somewhat stilted to pretty damned flawless 10 year old parlance. so...pretty smart kids we've got, eh?

amanda said...

hi there,

i work at an autism research center in the southwest, and read a selection of blogs by family members and individuals affected by autism every day. yours is one of them, and i wanted to let you know that your son is incredibly lucky to have a mother like you. i was really impressed by your insights in this post.

"Let's create our own world where I know what you'll say and where I'll decide what will happen next."

if only other parents had such a kind and patient understanding of their children and the way that they behave.

you are wonderful!

Penguin Lady said...

Am reading this late, but wanted to say that I recently came to the same conclusion about Will. He had stopped a lot of the delayed echolalia (he turned six in March and was at the height of it around 3-4). He, too, had a breakout summer - going to nine weeks of five different NT camps. Similar to Ben. Was amazing. Around school starting and some unstructured weeks of time with grandparents, at home, no camp, less heavy work/pressure, he started to "be" Dory from Nemo. He suddenly had "short-term memory loss" and began stammering all the time. We were entertained at first but then got worried. About a week into first grade, I realized this could affect his testing (he is at a school that does a lot of diagnostic testing for IEPs in the first weeks). I realized he was hiding in this world to cover up the anxiety over his changing schedule and new school year. Now, three weeks in, he appears to have left Dory behind. All he needed was a routine. Amazing.