"Does he have any specific interests?" "What is his favorite thing to play with?" These questions come up often when people meet my son, specifically new therapists who join our "team." As his mom, I feel like these questions should be easy to answer. But because I'm the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, it's almost always a layered answer.
Some children on the spectrum focus on their favorite toys early on and stick with them. Their likes and dislikes are obvious and rarely vary. Most things for children on the spectrum are routine, and often, the way they play can appear to be obsessive. Other children like my son, Rhys, don't seem to fit this textbook definition of ASD behavior. In our case, it's almost the opposite.
I always envisioned my parenting journey to be a little more hands-off, leaving my kids to their own devices at the hands of their imaginations. But as with most things you envision with parenting, things don't always go as expected. An ASD diagnosis requires you to lean in more than you've ever imagined and let go of a lot.
From a very early age, Rhys didn't seem to express specific interest in balls, cars, blocks, or any of the expected playthings for his age. He still doesn't exhibit particular preferences for toys. He prefers tinkering with objects around the house, usually those not designed for children to play with. Case in point: a tablet in the toilet. This, coupled with the fact that I'm not a "roll on the carpet and make up fun games" kind of mom, has made play a platform of growth for both of us.
Rhys' neurotypical three-year-old brother, Cam, picks up a car and rolls it along the carpet. He kicks a ball instead of trying to find the perfect-sized hole to fit it in. He rolls and shapes playdough rather than pressing it against his lips or sneaking a bite every now and then. The story with Rhys at five years old is different. He seeks sensory stimulation, falls into patterns, and often finds himself preoccupied along the way.
Rhys' ASD diagnosis came when he was three, a year after he won a battle against bacterial meningitis. After being home from the ICU for a few weeks, we discovered that our sweet boy had lost his hearing in the process. When Rhys received his cochlear implants, we knew we would have to teach him how to communicate again, but never once did we expect that we'd have to teach him how to play.
With Rhys, who is non-verbal and uses only a few signs, we practice how to play every day. It hurts that I don't know his favorite color or what he wants to play with and when, but I often remind myself I have a unique and close-up view of how the world works for him.
There will always be a fine line between allowing Rhys the freedom to focus on things he loves and making sure we expand his platforms of play. But we've discovered what makes him happy and brings him joy, all somehow, without any words. We've all come so far, and it's something we should remind ourselves to celebrate.
While flashcards and family board games are a little (or long) while away, our family has a handful of activities that always bring fun (basically anything that spins). We've learned to read a room, keep Rhys' play spaces minimal and give him less to choose from, and by pure trial—and many errors—we've learned what needs to stay very high up (and out of sight) until we can supervise the activity.
Our world of play is different from most families. For us, it's less about putting something out to occupy our ASD kiddo and more about pausing to include him in tasks, structure his sensory inputs, create safe spaces for him to explore, and doing this all with a very healthy dose of patience.
We're learning as we go—but that's one thing I think all parents can relate to.
Christine is a Zimbabwean-born, South-African raised, Irish-passport holding Canadian raising tiny tornadoes in the form of two cute brothers in Burlington, Ontario. She is a photographer, writer, and content creator constantly in search of stories to share in any way, shape, or form. She shares more about the ever-evolving adventure that is special needs parenting at @paperplanesandpeaches on Instagram, where she practices positivity daily and hopes to help other parents find the joy in the imperfect, messy middle.
Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners