Now back to the regularly scheduled blog...
I received a question on my blog yesterday from a reader wondering how to solve a situation with her high-functioning autistic daughter. She's pretending to be a character from High School Musical for the past year. This question was so up my alley because my daughter does the same thing, and I don't think I've blogged about this before!
Not long after my daughter turned 3, she started to pretend to be certain things or people. It started at her My Gym class when she'd hang upside down on the rings and yell out, "I'm a caterpillar forming his chrysalis!" This caused us all to laugh, and the My Gym coaches would rave about how smart and creative my daughter was! The charm started to leave, however, when my daughter started doing this all the time! She'd pretend to be characters from TV shows, books, or things she'd see in the real world. After going to Sea World, she pretended to be Shamu. After she got tired of that, she'd pretend to be Shamu's trainer. One particularly embarrassing time was when she was pretending to be the trainer and went to a friend's birthday party. When the mom opened the door, my daughter yelled out, "Hello, Shamu!" Yikes! Luckily, the mother took the greeting with good humor, commenting on how creative my daughter was.
Her constant pretending to be anyone but herself got really annoying. She'd have huge tantrums if anyone dared to call her by her actual name. I quickly realized that this wasn't going to fly when she went to kindergarten, so I knew I had to curtail this behavior fast! I set up some rules that when she was in preschool, she had to go by her name. This was often met with protest.
It was around this time--at age 4 1/2--that we had her assessed for autism. The psychologist who did the assessment told us that what our daughter was doing was called scripting. It's pretty common in high-functioning autistic/Asperger children. Ironically, as creative as it had appeared, she was doing it because she couldn't play creatively! So, she was recreating what she saw on TV, or read in books, or saw in real life. For her, that was how she was able to play.
One of the things we did was use her scripting as a springboard to creative play. So instead of recreating an episode of Curious George, for example, we would use the same characters and create new adventures. My daughter had a hard time doing this at first, but over time she was able to come up with some good ideas.
Another thing we had to work on was her overall rigidity. We found that getting her to be more flexible about things helped with the scripting. Not only would she not have tantrums if people called her by her name, but we were also able to introduce new characters to help with the original story lines. For example, when she wanted to play A Bug's Life, she would generally want to be Flik, the lead character ant. I'd want to be Roachie, a character I invented. My daughter hated Roachie at first, but she eventually liked the new character!
We received a lot of help with the rigidity issues through U.C. Santa Barbara's Koegel Center for Autism. (As an aside, if you are near a university that does research on autism issues, you need to get involved in any of the studies, if you can!). We consulted a few times with Lynn Koegel who is absolutely fabulous! She referred us to one of her PHd candidate students that was doing a study on rigidity in kids with autism. My daughter qualified for the study! Yay! The program used in that study really help her rigidity decrease a lot! It was an amazing difference. This study was key in decreasing the scripting!
How did the program work? I don't want to get into the nitty-gritty of it here, but in general, we used positive reinforcements instead of the negative reinforcements we had previously used (as blogged about in my last blog). What a difference this made! Sometimes, I feel like I'm bribing my daughter for good behavior, but she really seems to internalize why it's important to behave a certain way, so we've had great results.
It's important to curtail the scripting behavior. We had let it go on for about year and a half because we were ignorant about what was going on and why it was happening. If you notice your child doing a lot of this, try to bring more creativity to the play. It's so important!