The characters: a thirteen-year-old 7th grader and a ten-year-old 5th grader. Both cognitively impaired, to a degree. One with a syndrome. One with severe ADHD. Both with language disorders.
The setting: free play time, on the rug, with a huge box of Legos.
The two play together so well. They dig through the Lego bin together. They take turns digging, as both of their sets of hands don’t fit at the same time. Did you hear that? They take turns. They realize when they need to wait. Please tell me you get how big that is. Over the weeks they’ve developed favorite Lego pieces, favorite characters. They hand each other the ones they know the other likes. I know. It’s huge. Their favorite thing to do is find all of the characters and set them up. Sometimes making them look funny, with a mis-matched outfit, or two heads stacked on each other. They say to each other, “Hey Arianna, look at this!!!” They share with each other. They want to show each other things. They giggle loudly, together, when something is funny. Occasionally they call me over, wanting to show me something one or the other found or created. But mostly, they play on their own. Together.
Here’s the thing. I know there are people out there, various people of various professions, who would say, very confidently, “None of this is age-appropriate.” Such people would talk about how pretend play should be a thing of the past. They might add that a thirteen-year-old girl should be connecting with other thirteen-year-old girls, and that a ten-year-old boy shouldn’t be her go-to playmate.
But I can say very confidently, that those people would be wrong. There are no “shoulds”.
Yes, pretend play fades out at a certain age in most neurotypical brains. And yes, most individuals with neurotypically-developing brains would connect with peers their own age. And yes, maybe those individuals wouldn’t sit together showing each other Legos, passing characters back-and-forth, and giggling about it.
But. These two kids don’t have neurotypically-developing brains. So why place neurotypical demands on them? And guess what else? While pretend play develops for so many kids in toddlerhood, it didn’t for these kids. So they’re catching up. Their brains are filling in the steps that they missed. These are kids who didn’t know how to connect. Didn’t make those friendships, didn’t have language until they were in elementary school. So, of course they’re still doing pretend play. They never had.
If I learned a new language right now, that I had never learned before, I’d be at the one-word and two-word stage. I’d sound like a toddler, trying to communicate, in telegraphic speech. Sure, maybe I could memorize a few phrases. But that would be about it. You would never say to me, “Jen, you’re 27. You need to be speaking in sentences and conveying your thoughts in a much more eloquent way. You need to connect with other adults your age and talk with them.” It’s no different with my kids. They’re not going to magically skip developmental steps that everyone else goes through. And why would we expect them to?
To the people who expect them to “fit in” and participate in “age-appropriate” conversations and activities – the reason that they don’t is because they can’t. Because they’re not there yet. And maybe they’ll get there and maybe they won’t. But whatever happens – let’s just celebrate where they’re at. The new skills they’re developing and applying – it’s no less significant than a baby learning to point. It’s just happening at a different time.
So. Let them play. Let them script. Let them laugh. Let them be thirteen-years-old and need to learn how to use words and not push. Let them be ten-years-old and learn about compromising. Because, their brains need to. Because, their brains never did. Because, they’re learning. Because, they’re connecting. Far better than forcing them to sit and talk about things that they don’t understand and things that they don’t care about.
And if you worry about them not fitting in? They do fit in. Just maybe not with whom you expected them to. But that’s okay. We all make different friends. We all have different connections. The important thing here is that they do fit in. They have peers. They have playmates. And that’s worth embracing. That’s what matters.