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Autistic Parents: Is Playtime With the Kids Wearing You Out?

Tips to make time with your kid feel more like play and less like work.

Being an autistic parent is tough. Just like being any kind of parent. But it’s also the best thing in the world—as any parent, not just autistic ones, will tell you.

Source: 吴 迪 @brawny/Unsplash
Source: 吴 迪 @brawny/Unsplash

One of the things I find hardest about parenting with autism is the discrepancy in the way that I “play” versus the way my children play. Especially as they get older and their imaginations get wilder, I am constantly finding myself lost and tired and overwhelmed after only five or 10 minutes of dedicated playtime.

Throw in the fact that the kids are with us nearly 24/7 now due to the ongoing pandemic, and you have a recipe for epic burnout!

I have often thought to myself, what’s wrong with me? Playtime is supposed to be fun, right? Why do I find it so draining?

Well there’s nothing wrong with me. I am autistic, so I “play” differently, and that’s OK.

Now, my son is also autistic, but as any autie will tell you, “If you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person.”

Yes, he likes to line his cars up by color or make “traffic jams.” Yes, we play out the same types of police chase scenarios over and over (all of which is much closer to my idea of “play”). His imagination, however, craves attention and challenge, and I often become embroiled in elaborate make-believe adventures that, very simply, wear me out.

I don’t know how to pretend-play with my kid. I can’t make up stories on the fly and bubble up “natural” reactions to pretend social situations that he cooks up—I end up just telling him to tell me exactly what he wants me to say next, and that’s no fun for anybody.

If that sounds familiar (whether you are autistic or not!), here are some things that have helped me make the most out of playtime with my imaginative kiddo, without busting my energy bank!

1. Use repetition to your advantage

Most kids, autistic or no, enjoy repetition. It’s why children’s books tend to repeat the same or similar phrases over and over.

As an autistic person, repetition is right in my wheelhouse.

So I use that to my advantage—I find something that my kid thinks is funny—like a particular dramatized reaction or a silly-sounding word, and use it over and over again during our imaginative play to solicit a laugh. He will play along with this, creating the same situation again and again that led to the funny thing. This gives me a few minutes of respite from the random ideation of social storyline—it’s just action, silly reaction, action, silly reaction, over and over so I don’t have to think so hard.

2. Have a formula

When my 5-year-old insists on story-based play (i.e., The princess is going on an adventure! And she must defeat the witch and save the puppy!), I keep a simple formula in my back pocket to help guide me through the ideation and creation phase of the play:

  • A main character has a goal.
  • They meet three obstacles along the way to reaching that goal—these can be almost the same but with a small change each time (think the big bad wolf blowing down houses made out of various materials).
  • Finally, the goal is achieved and celebration ensues.

I can adapt this same kind of story formula for when he is more interested in socio-emotional imaginative play, like having a pretend tea party or bringing his toy car to the mechanic—we have our goal, then a series of silly things go wrong which obstruct our goal (the tea is too hot and then too cold, the car horn keeps making a funny noise no matter what I do, etc.), and then eventually everything works out.

*Pro tip: More than once I have had to reluctantly let go of the “everything works out” resolution stage, as my kiddo seems to think things should keep going wrong into eternity!

3. Play to your strengths

Find something that appeals to your child which is also something you are good at or enjoy doing.

My special interest is Harry Potter. Sometimes I can convince my little imaginer to pretend that we are wizards at magic school, so it becomes easier for me to plot our adventure.

Apparently, I am also good at imitating different voices and accents (something a lot of autistic people are good at, incidentally), so if I am in need of a break from playing his way, I will put on a character voice for him and that will carry us for a while through some repetitive play before I have to start using my imagination again.

4. Break into song

This worked more often when he was a little bit younger—3 and 4 years old—but still works now in a pinch.

If I am getting run down or feeling fresh out of ideas, I will start singing a song that he knows or start playing one on my phone. Often kids’ songs have their own built in games—think “If You’re Happy and You Know It” or “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”—the actions that go along with the words will keep him engaged for a few minutes, and I can do them with him, conserving my mental energy while we both listen to the directions of the song.

You can do another version of this type of mental break with other simple games, like “Simon Says” or “I Spy”—games you can play anywhere, anytime, that have simple rules to follow.

These don’t hold my kiddo’s attention for more than five to 10 minutes or so—but sometimes that’s all of the time I need to recharge for the next round of imagining.

5. Know your limits

It has taken some time, but I have come to accept the fact that I find playtime to be one of the most challenging aspects of parenting.

So I give myself grace. I schedule in rest time for myself before and after playtime. Again, this doesn’t have to be long—sometimes I’ll tell my kid that I will play with him in 10 minutes, and we set a timer (without the timer, he’d be asking constantly when the 10 minutes is up!). I take that time to drink a cup of tea or have a snack, maybe do some breathing or scroll through social media. Then I’m ready to play!

And while I exercise my playtime muscle, I know that in a certain amount of time I will get another short rest. Something to look forward to that helps pull me through.

It’s also OK to tell your kiddo that you just can’t play right now. Or that you can only play certain games right now that are easier for you to handle.

Especially as we are working from home with the kids still mostly home through the pandemic, and have been for some time now, it’s important to know that we all have boundaries and respect them, even as we feel lucky to have this time together.

In the end, your kids will enjoy their quality time with you no matter what you do!

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