At last year’s International Narrative conference, I had the great pleasure of attending a panel chaired by Lisa Zunshine on “Cognitive Approaches to Narrative”. One of the panelists, Ralph James Savarese, gave a fascinating talk on using fiction to help persons with ASD to develop better social skills and the ability to understand other minds (talk was titled “Reading Ceremony with Autist Jamie Burke”). At the time I remember being very intrigued by the prospect of using theory of mind to help others in this way, and (if memory serves) I recall Savarese also mentioning this activity being similar to using games and play to help persons with ASD to simulate interacting with others. Unfortunately this was little more than a fleeting thought at the time, and I have never returned to it until this week.
If narrative creates space for play and play moves narrative–things games are making us realize–then what implications do these things have for persons with ASD? What caught my attention about the description of ASD on PubMed was its effects on “creative or imaginative play”, a “crucial area of development” (PubMed Health). I understand how ASD affects creativity and imagination, but why play in particular? Of course such a question opens up on a whole host of other ones dealing with play as a cognitive tool for exploration and growth, so it may be helpful to narrow it down a bit here. Is it that persons with ASD do not play imaginatively or creatively, or that they do not play at all?
The answer to the latter question seems obviously no–as we can see in our primary reading for this week (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), people like Christopher certainly do play. One of the objects in Christopher’s pocket when he is picked up by the police is a piece of a wooden puzzle (13), his mother later buys him another wooden puzzle that he plays with (216-217), and he even plays a game of imagining the trains to help himself cope at the train station (179). He also often plays Minesweeper when he is at home in his room with Toby. So it isn’t that someone with ASD (and here I know it’s problematic to draw general conclusions from a portrayal of a single fictional character, but bear with me) cannot play, nor is it that they cannot imagine or create. The puzzles Christopher solves are often of the brain-teaser variety, and require him to think very creatively in order to solve them. And yet there is something different about the way Christopher plays.
I suggest that that something relates to the structure and end-state of the play Christopher engages in. Christopher’s play is almost always rigidly structured, and more importantly it is play that must have a solution. Christopher does not like open-ended play, as seen in the imaginative play in the train station I mentioned: “And normally I don’t imagine things that aren’t happening because it is a lie and it makes me feel scared . . .” (179-180). Unfettered imagination is scary for Christopher because it presents too many possibilities that are impossible to bring down to one solution, and the stimulation and uncertainty of that is terrifying for him. Imaginative play must be tied to what is really happening, and failing that it must have a purpose and solution. This seems to me a crucial clarification of the PubMed definition of ASD–it is not that Christopher or anyone like him cannot imagine and create in their play, but rather that that imagination and creativity needs to be structured with a purpose/solution. As seems to often be the case, Christopher is not dealing with a disability or lack of capability so much as a different form of ability, a capability that requires certain rules and structures to function.