In my fifteen years of working with young children with special needs and their families I have worn a variety of hats. I’ve donned teacher, behaviorist, socialization coach, language builder, social worker, counselor, art instructor and toileting trainer. The hat I love most of all, is most definitely playmate and friend. The role of playmate affords me so many experiences where I’m on the receiving end of positive reinforcement rather than the one delivering it and it will keep me going for quite possibly another 15 years.
The majority of my work is with toddlers and preschool age children who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders and who, as a result, miss out on the wealth of skills that are acquired through pretend play because it involves components that present as challenges to them. Pretend play offers opportunities for perspective taking, problem solving, cooperation, social-emotional skill acquisition and language development. I love to guide children, parents and colleagues through the rough terrain of the pretend play world. The great thing about play is that there are so many avenues that lead to the same results and this informs my mantra that “All kids can play.”
It is often thought that children with Autism won’t learn to pretend and if that thought is held by the adults that surround them that will surely be the case. Sadly, I have seen the adults in children’s lives give up on the prospect of play because it is just too hard to think outside of the box. I have heard “All Tommy does is throw his toys around the room and destroy things.” More than once I’ve witnessed the fear in a parent’s eyes when the weather report indicates rain for the entire weekend and how they start to pull at their hair realizing that the playground won’t be an option. As a therapist I spend only a few years with a child but they have their parents forever. Therefore, the objective that is always on the top of my list is to empower parents and caregivers.
I myself am a visual learner and so of course I thought about colorful illustrations when I began developing a guide for parents, caregivers and therapists in teaching kids to engage in pretend play schemas. Additionally, so many of the students I have worked with over the years respond to artistic representations of the world and I thought that lively and colorful illustrations might be a good place to start in familiarizing kids with the information necessary for pretend play. The Hooray for Play! cards utilize 31 colorful illustrations of popular play schemas with the most salient features of the scenario highlighted with color on the card’s front. The backside of the cards has the information for organizing what is necessary for pretend play in and easy to remember “Do!, Say!, Play!” framework. The Do! section outlines the role of various actors in the play scenario, the Say!! section provides examples of scripted dialogue and the Play!!! section outlines ideas for props and set-up. All of the information can be learned first in a more structured format and can later move toward imaginative and free form play. There are also cards with suggestions for use that guide users from direct instruction activities to partner games and independent pretend play.
I believe here is an ability for pretend and play in every child and once you stumble upon the scenario that brings a sparkle to their eyes, a gaggle of giggles to their belly and a sense of mastery of routines around them you will pull that playmate hat out of your closet as often as I do. I’m sure of it.
Stacy L. Assay, LMSW
Stacy is a licensed social worker with fifteen years of experience working with children diagnosed with developmental delays and autism spectrum disorders. Currently, Stacy is providing home-based Early Intervention services to children and their families in the New York City area and is involved with Different Roads to Learning, as a consultant on various projects including the creation of Hooray for Play. Her professional interests lie in the realm of developing new methods and tools for the effective teaching of play skills and in the pursuit of her board certification in Behavior Analysis (BCBA). Stacy’s approach integrates a strengths-based, holistic approach to child and family with the tools of Applied Behavior Analysis, a methodology that allows for reliable measurement, objective evaluation of behaviors, and the systematic teaching of language and learning skills. This results in an individualized curriculum that equips children with the tools they need for learning and living while honoring their unique spirit.