When my son was two-years-old he was gifted a friend’s favorite Tonka firetruck. It was a gift that I initially didn’t like because it was a big toy and it made noise – a high-pitched siren noise (just like a real fire engine truck). My son carted that firetruck everywhere. It sat in his lap during his carseat snooze. The firetruck raced through the wet sand at the park. It proudly wore stickers from a favorite cartoon called Fireman Sam – and now only sticky reminders of white goo remain on it. The firetruck inspired not only one, but two birthday parties at fire stations in our neighborhood in Seattle. This provoked great anxiety because the fire station doesn’t really “book” birthday parties. Instead, they will always give citizens tours of their station. And, so for two years, I would round up my son and two of his buddies and we would call and hour before the “party,” and, again, twenty minutes before. And then I would pray, cross my fingers, and sweat profusely just as we rang the station’s buzzer for the start of our expectant party. Both parties were a success – and we even saw a real fire emergency (as my son would say). We watched with big eyes as the firemen pulled on their gear, climbed into the truck, and then turned on the sirens, all before racing out of the big fire house.
Everyone always told me, “this is a stage,” and “the next thing you know, he’ll be into girls and loud music.” And so I savored my son’s moments of playing with his firetrucks. He stooped down on hands and knees, his voice emulated the high-pitched siren noise (somehow the batteries disappeared), and his rhythmic body moved so quickly with his truck that you truly couldn’t even take a picture.
And I loved every moment.
And, still today, at almost 9-years-old, I still get chills when I hear my son emulate the high-pitch sound of the siren and bring out that same firetruck. Today he now has five other engines that also come out to the rescue. But, his original firetruck, the one he used to run through the wet sand, it is still his most prized toy. He can play for hours at time, turning my living room into a burning apartment complex with giraffes and dinosaurs needing to be saved. He fills the water tanks of the fire engines (very sneakily) and shoots water at the large flames that envelop my chest-of-drawers. His imagination is so toxic that his sister even joins the rescue effort. She can usually sustain this high-energy for about 5 minutes before returning to her artwork or play dough or dolls.
At almost 9-years-old, my son still loves his firetruck. He still plays the same way he played when he was 2-years-old. Many friends don’t realize – or recognize – that this is the preferred type of play for my son. Most of them just go with it. His sister often just goes with it, too. However, there is always the moment when someone wants to play something different. When the firetruck rescue is over. When everyone is bored. When there is no one else to rescue. And this is the moment when I see that my son thrives with repetitive play.
There is nothing wrong, per say, with repetitive play, in my opinion. However, the focus on repetitive play is often an indicator of repetitive actions, speech, body movements, and food cravings. Repetition is the easiest way to predict what is next. And, it is also the easiest way to stunt a child’s growth – especially if they are on the Autism Spectrum.
There are small ways to move a child out of the repetitive way of doing something. It can be something as simple as introducing popsicle sticks into the playtime. It is amazing to see what can happen with popsicle sticks in the middle of a fire rescue. The popsicle sticks are suddenly a bridge – and that bridge is also the route to the nearest gluten-free bakery. While this just brings a chuckle to my heart, it is also a small shift into something new in his play. No longer is he laser-focused on just the fire rescue, but now there is a gluten-free bakery involved. And to move a step further, is to begin asking questions about the the fire engine. How does it carry so much water? What does it need in order to pump the water? What is the turning radius of a fire engine? And so forth. …
This can also be applied to other areas of a child’s life where they exhibit repetition. For instance, I noticed a few weeks ago that my son always took notice of our Thursday night dinners at a local restaurant. For a variety of reasons (after school activities, my poor grocery shopping skills, etc.) we always ended up at this restaurant on a Thursday night. And when we went to this particular restaurant on a Wednesday night this week, my son couldn’t understand why. He couldn’t understand why it wasn’t Thursday if we were having dinner at this restaurant on a Wednesday. After a quick explanation that plans changed and we needed to be flexible, he eased into the newness of Wednesday night at the restaurant. Another small shift. The bigger shift, which may or may not happen in the near future, will be to actually eat somewhere other than this particular restaurant.
Nothing is wrong with repetition – or in this case routine. It helps to anticipate what is next. It helps us to find stability in the midst of a 5-year-old tantrum and a report that is late at work. Repetition is the placeholder so we don’t have to think about it. And, this, right here, is why I believe my son practices repetition and routine like he does. He doesn’t have to think about it. He already has to process fluorescent lights, loud and murmuring sounds, strong and musty smells, the expressions on someone’s face. He hears the ticking of the lights above him and he smells the fish being cooked in the person’s condo unit two doors away. He is very aware of everything. Everything.
My son spends his entire day not only taking in the world around him, but also keeping himself together enough that he doesn’t have a sensory meltdown (most days). And because this is so taxing and so exhausting, there is nothing more he can process when he comes home. He truly wants four chicken nuggets and three big apple slices. He wants to watch 30 minutes of his science show on TV. He must play with Legos for at least 5-minutes before his bedtime story. And, if there isn’t a bedtime story, then he cannot – I mean CANNOT – drift into slumber.
And, I believe he will always fall into fire rescue when he doesn’t know what else to play. Because this brings him joy and a sense of calm. And, this makes me happy.