Mazes and Aloe Plants: Playing the Way They Need

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By Jennifer Cook O’Toole
Author of “Asperkids: An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding,
and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome

This year, I took up gardening.  And I have to admit that I’ve been pretty excited to discover that my thumb is not, in fact, “black” (which after many attempts to care for the most basic of houseplants, I was pretty convinced was the case).  While I wouldn’t exactly say I have a “green thumb” — “chartreuse” might be fair.

That’s why, when my mom, who was going to be traveling, asked me to take care of her aloe plant, I not only agreed, I even went so far as to re-pot “Al the Aloe” in a brand-new container as a surprise gift.  I looked online, read that Al needed “bright light,” and set “him” lovingly in a bright, sunny spot near my rose bushes.

Only Al quickly began to wilt.  And turn brown.  And look, well, really, really sick.  There went my Better Homes and Gardens award.  With little hope on the horizon, I went back to the gardening site I’d read and realized that I’d given Al “direct” light, when “bright” light was needed.  They seemed pretty similar — bright light/direct light — and I’d thought they were the same thing. It turns out, however, they are not.

Asperkids: An Insiders’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome

And here is where we get to the topic of play, in particular, play among kids with Asperger Syndrome.  All children negotiate the world through play.  That’s a given.  Play is how we learn to move, work, sort through information and react to those around us. As I wrote in “Asperkids: An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding, and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2012), it’s how we practice “interpersonal connection, motor planning….conversational skills, cognitive and memory work.” (p67)  Play provides what children need to become functional adults.  But, any given child on any given day has different skills that need developing.  And like Al the Aloe Plant, if a child needs one set of circumstances and is provided with something else, he won’t grow.  He’ll wilt.

Parents and teachers often notice that Asperkids play a little differently than typical children — what they don’t realize is that’s actually a good thing.   “I have heard, ‘She has no imagination,’ from more than one parent describing their child (either disparagingly or woefully). But from where I stand, as an Aspergirl [myself] and mom to three Asperkids, I could not disagree more.” (p.69)

Like other kids, Asperkids get what they need from play, too.  And since their needs are different, their play is different. They’re seeking bright light, not direct light.

Neurotypical children enjoy group play without much effort.  And while Asperkids want friends, making and keeping them feels really hard.  Now, we all know that play is supposed to be fun.  But to an Asperkid — whose mind naturally operates on logic-driven, if/then, concrete clarity — collaborative, open-ended, group games aren’t fun.  They’re really, really hard.  So, they choose other kinds of play.  Play that achieves what they need — and feels FUN to them. “Sometimes, playing with the kinds of toys we want (less “abstract/imaginative” and more “real”) in the ways that we want (without the stress of social anxiety), is the most peaceful time we have.” (p68)  That’s why, just like other kids, Asperkids need to be allowed their own version of “down time,” too.

It’s no surprise, then, that Asperkids, like mine, were always drawn to the products put out by “smart” toy companies, like MindWare, for example.  My own Asperkids adore the analytical challenges of Perplexors (my daughter’s favorite logic puzzles ever), of word puzzles like Word Winks (which match the literal way Aspies “see” words in our minds), and of the symmetrical beauty of patterns in games like Pattern Play.

Here’s the sneaky insider-tip, though: Asperkids can still learn the interpersonal skills they need from the activities they enjoy.  It just takes a little understanding of the how’s and why’s.

For example, one of the major challenges for Asperkids is something psychologists refer to as “theory of mind.”  That’s fancy-talk for being able to intuitively put yourself in someone else’s place — to imagine what he or she feels and thinks, and to react accordingly.  Without that ability, Asperkids struggle to differentiate between their own ideas and experiences and anyone else’s.  If something is obvious to an Asperkid, it must be, he assumes, obvious to you, too.

Enter a little communication “blip” that causes big trouble.

At school, “mind blindness” makes group work hard.  Working with a partner or team means being able to feed off of one another’s input, to understand their perspectives and to explain your own.  Young Asperkids who can’t manage that well appear “bratty” or “bossy,” sort of a “my way or no way” thing that teachers and peers won’t like.  As they get older, those Asperkids may either retain a “know-it-all” reputation (which they don’t understand how they’ve created) or withdraw into solitary depression…or both.  That’s why it’s up to the us to remember that their confusion, rigidity and anxiety come from a literal “blindness” to others’ minds.  It’s not intentional.  It’s neurological.

Instead, WE adults have to be intentional in the way we use play to teach the skills they need.

The other day, my daughter was playing “Tactic Twisters,” a new brain-teaser book that she’d gotten as a reward for good deeds around the house.  I saddled up beside her, asked if I could join in — and got a big grin in return. “YES!” she agreed happily.

Here’s the rub: a quick look at the puzzle told me that she was going to need a few visual tricks to help her negotiate the maze.  Like many Asperkids, too much visual crowding can overwhelm her.  And this momma knew that some simple tweaks (a highlighted number here, a colored box there) would be all she’d need to complete logic puzzles designed for kids much older than she.

Yet when I made my suggestions, she quickly became frustrated with me.  She didn’t need this idea or that marking. So I asked her to just let me try once — to humor me.  She did, and then succeeded.  Couldn’t she just let me do it one more time? Fine, she huffed…and she succeeded again.  The fact is that none of us like to need help or to be wrong.  For kids who feel like total failures if they make a single mistake, that’s even more true.

And so, after a few puzzles, she casually said, “Oh go ahead, Mom.  You can keep making the marks.” Which I did.  Without comment.  No “I told you so” or smug smile.  What I did do, however, was bring it up later at bedtime.

When presented as a concrete challenge where she was literally able to negotiate her way to her goal by accepting someone else’s contribution, she was able to discuss a much bigger, more abstract concept — that not only is accepting help alright, it’s smart.  Sure, she could’ve done the puzzles without me, and yes, she got defensive when I tried to collaborate (“And how do you think that made me feel? Do you think folks will want to keep working or playing together if they feel pushed away? Why not?).  But she learned — firsthand — that by accepting and eventually even inviting the input of someone who had her best interests in mind, she could make better use of her own talents and master the “twister” with less stress and more FUN.

And that’s play with a purpose.

My Asperkid didn’t learn about teamwork on a softball field or in a drama group.  Maybe she will someday.  For today, though, “Tactic Twisters” was enough of an opportunity to learn that the best way to negotiate life’s twists and turns is by listening to those who care, considering what they offer, and then using your own talents to make your way through.

Like Al the Aloe Plant, Asperkids have their own set of needs to fulfill — it’s not about right or wrong, it’s about different.  While my daughter didn’t receive a “direct” getting-along-with-others tutorial on a crowded playground or classroom, it was a “bright” moment of understanding.  And it was fun.  So we’ll keep playing with purpose and intention.  And she, like Al, will bloom.

You can learn more about Jennifer at You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Jennifer Cook O’Toole

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