When my autistic son N showed an interest in puzzles, I was beyond excited. I was truly over the moon.
At last, N was interested in something that could be considered “normal play”! Before the peg puzzle, there was little which N did with toys that I could identify with as “normal” or “play”: N would line up toys, and N would spin toys around and around. But there was no interest in their real purpose. With the introduction of the peg puzzle N showed both interest in and ability to play with a toy in the intended manner. What is more, he showed evidence of having a skill: N was able to do matching!
For me this was a monumentous event. I seized upon it with great zeal and enthusiasm! I bought every wooden peg puzzle I could find. “Normal appropriate play” were three dream words for me, for I had come to believe I would never see them materialize together in my youngest son. Those three words meant so many things: less social isolation for N, cognitive gains for N that I did not know he would achieve, and most importantly, the ability to self-entertain.
The latter point was of greatest interest to me. With the support of the school we decided to teach N a play system using the peg puzzles. N needed to be taught how to play, and what play expectations were. Using a Rubbermaid three drawer organizer, each drawer containing one peg puzzle, we would teach N to sequentially open a drawer, remove a puzzle, take it apart, put it back together again, and return it to the drawer. Repeat. Of course, the successful completion of the task was reinforced using a reward (candy, or Downy dryer sheet, his favorite things). In order to increase play time, another three drawer organizer could be added, and then eventually another. It was hoped that, at some future date, more complex puzzles could be introduced into the play system, or other play activites could be inserted into the drawers, and eventually N would have a way to spend leisure time. It is an engenious idea, we still use it (albeit at home we have not added a second or third organizer yet), but teaching a strict adherence to the play system has not been without some challenges.
At home I found that N could complete the three drawers of peg puzzles in a matter of minutes, when motivated. This did not make for a very long play period even if the addition of more drawer sets was contemplated. I noticed something else: N was removing the puzzle pieces, SPINNING them using the peg, and then putting them back in the board. Normal appropriate play? Hmmm…..doubts had begun to take root.
I tried an experiment. I asked the school to introduce wood puzzles that were similar to the peg puzzles, but lacked the peg. As I suspected, these puzzles were not nearly as interesting to N. I now realized that N had learned, if he complied with the play and matching process, then he could spin the puzzle pieces. It was the good old autistic spinning that he really enjoyed, not doing puzzles. The pegs were important because for him, they facilitated the spinning action.
Another more practical issue soon emerged. N would steal puzzle pieces from the drawers, and they began to appear about the house in unexpected places. Once N discovered my stash of puzzles in the toy cupboard, the trickle of misplaced puzzle pieces soon became a bit of a flood. It seemed to me like, in my house, puzzle pieces had somehow come alive, and they were invading every nook and crany. There were puzzle pieces harboring like ships in the kitchen sink, there were puzzle pieces huddled between the cushions of the couch. Puzzle pieces were sleeping in people beds, hiding in boots and shoes, burrowing in the laundry, exploring the garbage can, reclining in the tubs, swimming in the toilets, plugging the toilets (found by plumber at considerable cost $$$ ), growing in planters, and lounging on the floors. In the dark of night, a few times I did step upon a peg puzzle piece scurrying across the bathroom floor, and it took great strength of will not to cry out and curse it!
The puzzle piece invasion caused me much stress, both because of the work that mess represented to me to put them away or make N put them away and because of the fact that precious puzzle boards were missing pieces. I felt the strain of work on both ends. I was most dismayed that the beautiful wooden toys I had bought with love and anticipation of enjoyment were getting destroyed.
I struggled with what to do. First there was the spinning issue. Should I discourage the spinning of the puzzle pieces and force normal puzzle play? Should I disparge something that clearly N enjoyed? I had come to the opinon that N is spinning puzzle pieces as a comfort, the puzzle piece is itself a comfort object that he can carry in his hand and that can provide visual relief in an environment where he might not find anything visually calming. The puzzle piece and its spinning is a visual experience that he himself controls. I wondered, am I being judgemental when I try to force my own interpretation of normal play upon him? Spinning puzzle pieces may may not be normal appropriate play for me, but there is something about it that serves the same purpose for N. It helps him explore his world, it helps him control his reality and it helps him make sense of the senseless around him.
Secondly there there is the home invasion issue, the mess. Clearly I do not want puzzle pieces all over the house, I do need some way to contain the contagion for my own sanity.
My decision was an acknowledgement of both of our needs. I decided to throw out the puzzle boards with several pieces that were missing, and place all the remaining pieces in a small bin for his use. I kept the remaining peg puzzles that were fully intact, and put them in sealed bins. I would control access to these. In contrast the bin of miscellaneous puzzle pieces is always available to N in his bedroom for his play. When N leaves a puzzle piece in an unexpected location, I simply retrieve the small bin full of peg puzzle pieces, and have him ‘TIDY UP”. This is much simpler than having him return it to the correct location and puzzle board.
I do not feel that I have given up on him. On the contrary, I will never give up on him. I have had to eat from the hearty bowl of Acceptance Soup, when it comes to my expectations. But I have not given up on helping him to find happiness and enjoyment in life.
Like its dessert counterpart, “Humble Pie”, the first few mouthfuls of Acceptance Soup are bitter. But after a few tries, it quickly becomes a comfort food.
So let us be aware that Acceptance Soup is the food of love, the stuff of our compassion that we leave on the plate of life when other things are more appetizing. Let us never stop caring, and never stop seeking beyond the surface. Let us not be governed by our own wishes, judgements and experiences but rather by the wisdom that is presented by the simple things, like puzzle pieces.