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Playful Communication Part 3: Wordplay

Previously I’ve written about the importance of recognising and valuing different forms of communication and the need for us to allow for expressive as well as functional communication. In this piece I’m going to take a specific look at language as a form of expressive communication and in particular what this can look like in the play of autistic people.

In troduction

For most people language as a form of expression is something that is encouraged; writing poetry, prose and music is not only valued and celebrated but considered an act that is essentially human. This is often forgotten when it comes to autistic children where “non-functional” language can get brushed aside by surrounding adults as not meaningful, worth listening too or in some cases even seen as damaging to the child. But autistic people should be allowed and encouraged to enjoy and play with language just as their neuro-typical peers are. In trying to prevent this use of language we are denying an individual a culturally and historically significant part of being human. I would also argue that playing with language is one way in which it can become meaningful to an individual. Therefore as people are most comfortable and content when able to communicate in a way that is meaningful to them, limiting this playing with language is only going to hinder their ability to communicate and be heard.

Some words

Before I jump in, I want to define a few words I’m going to be using in the rest of this essay, these are words commonly used by autistic people, allies, parents and professionals alike. The basic meanings people use don’t tend to vary that much but the way people approach or understand each one does. These definitions won’t be exhaustive but will hopefully give you an understanding or what I mean when I use these words.

Stimming

This word comes from ‘stimulatory’ in “self-stimulatory behaviour”. It’s not just autistic people who do this, but we tend to do it particularly often and it can fulfil many different functions. We also do it fantastically well. It can help regulate the senses, manage anxiety or other difficult emotions, be a part of feeling excited or joyful or be done simply because it feels good. Stimming usually takes the form of a repetitive behaviour that engages one or more of the senses such as rocking, jumping, hand flapping and humming.

Echolalia

This is a form of communication where someone repeats phrases or words they’ve heard. It can be immediate; you might say to a child “do you want to go on the swing” and they might say “swing” back to mean yes, where another child, not using echolalia, might just say “yes”. Or it can be delayed, with phrases or words repeated back moments, hours, days later. This could be because they’ve been processing what was said during that delay, or they might be using what was said before to convey meaning in that present moment. Either way it might look like the child coming up to you an hour later and saying, “do you want to go on the swing” and meaning “I want to go on the swing can you push me.”

Scripting

There are two main kinds of scripting, echolalic scripting and social scripting, although they cross over. Social scripting is using learned or repeated phrases to navigate social situations. The kind I’m going to be talking about here is echolalic scripting which I would describe as where echolalia and stimming meet. People will use lines from films, tv shows, books, songs, conversations they’ve had or overheard to ‘script’ with. They may repeat long streams of dialogue or a short bit over and over. This can be for enjoyment, self-expression or as a way of engaging with someone. It’s common for people to draw on a bank of learned phrases or dialogue (‘scripts’) which they associate with a certain emotion or situation when they find themselves experiencing that emotion or situation.

Now let’s get into the serious play stuff.

In Play

[colourful line drawing showing two children, one is half way through saying “knock knock” and the other has just shouted “batman!”]

Poop Jokes for President

Of the 16 play types described by play theorist Bob Hughes, what I’m talking about here fits best, although not quite snugly, into the category of ‘Communication Play’. Hughes defines this as;

 play using words, nuances or gestures for example, mime, jokes, play acting, mickey taking, singing, debate, poetry”.

 You know how some kids just love to talk about poop, sing about poop and call you a poop? That’s a form of communication play. Ever had the pleasure of listening in on a bunch of kids making up format-defying knock-knock jokes? Also communication play. What about the kid in a corner talking to the puppet on his own hand? Communication play! (also; me for the first year of secondary school). When I talk about playing with language, I am referring to a kind of communication play which, when seen through an autistic lens can fracture into multitudes of shapes and forms.

In spite of their wonder and complexity these forms of playing with language often go unnoticed or dismissed; especially when the adult’s viewpoint is skewed by the “functional language only” bias discussed above. If a child who uses language isn’t using words to communicate in the acceptable or ‘correct’ way, then it can be presumed they are doing that out of ignorance. When actually, they may be using their words exactly as they intended, you just don’t have the tools to recognise or to interpret it.

To help with this, I’m going to take a look at some of those shapes and forms of autistic wordplay that I’ve observed and experienced.

Talking as Stimming

Have you ever observed someone rolling a word around their mouth like a gobstopper? Most recently a conversation I was having with a young person came to a standstill as the word “booth” caught them. They elongated it, dragging out the ooooh and shortened it, expelling it like a cough. They altered the pitch wobbling it in the middle, smiled and giggled. This is where talking can be a form of stimming; more about sensing than communicating. Try it now; take a word and say it out loud, say it in your head whilst imagining saying it out loud, mouth it, taste it, spit it out quickly, stick out your tongue with it balanced right on the tip, almost falling… pull it back in, explore the entire surface, look for hidden cracks and fractures, get inside and discover what it’s really made off. Imagine doing all off this and not feeling silly or self-conscious, imagine this being something that brings you immense joy and satisfaction and then being made to feel silly or self-conscious.

[colourful line drawing with three variations of the same face saying ‘booth’. One looks up to the sky and whistles it, another sticks their tongue out and another shouts it]

As stimming can be used to fulfil a range of different needs talking as stimming is not always going to be about play, but it can be, particularly when the person stimming is relaxed and if they are happily responsive to or engaged in someone else joining in. What may start as stimming as a reaction to anxiety about being in a busy playground may become playful as it enables the child to relax and then morph into a part of the child’s play as they try out new words perhaps ones which relate to that which is happening around them. A child may smile and squeal as another speeds past them on a scooter a little closer than expected, and then beginning vocally stimming, saying ‘oh dear watch out oh dear watch out oh dear watch out” over and over again. To an outsider, based on the words and repetition alone, it may seem like the child is distressed but actually it might be a humorous comfortable and playful reaction.  If the above scooter-scenario happened to me right now I can guarantee my brain would shout ‘shocked and appalled, shocked and appalled, shocked and appalled.’ Just typing this is making heart is beating a little faster and a goofy smile appear on my face. It’s very unlikely I would actually be shocked and appalled, but this phrase is something my brain always goes too, likely because it amuses me. When I’m on a playground most of the time I would resist saying this aloud but if it was a child I knew, who also stim-talks I probably would, and it might become a playful exchange.

Scripting Anarchy

Anyone whose spent enough time around autistic people will probably have had the same conversation over and over again. Or will at least think they have. It might be exchanging the same few lines of dialogue from an episode of Thomas the Tank or it might be lines that you’ve learnt from the other person over time from an obscure sci-fi movie you’ve never actually seen. Someone might have a set of questions they ask again and again to get the same answers from you. Much like talking as stimming there is no one reason people do this, but it can be a part of play or a way into play with another person. It can also be a way to establish communication with someone to enable a different kind of play, or an invitation to bring someone else into the script.

When at its most playful this kind of scripting becomes subtly anarchic. You may find yourself in what you think is the same conversation but if you pay close attention there are small changes being made, little explorations and experiments. It may be the words themselves or the way they are delivered. The more you get to know someone the more you might find you can introduce a little anarchy yourself, you might change a word or mix in another concept. If the other person isn’t ready for this, they may well ignore it, that’s okay. A young person I know scripts with SpongeBob Square pants and a lot of the time they will ignore if I try to introduce a deviation. But on occasion, when they loudly sing “who lives in a pineapple under the sea” and I reply “Winnie the Pooh” (to the SpongeBob tune) it stops them in their tracks. They’ll give me a look that says; ‘challenge accepted’, and then we’re playing. We go back to the beginning of the script, both curious about what’s going to happen next, this time when I respond “SpongeBob square pants” it’s somehow funnier than the deviant version. This can go on and on and build and build. Imagine phrases and words as building blocks that are being stacked higher and higher in a tower; they can be knocked down suddenly, pushed slowly, intentionally picked up and placed upside down as an experiment to see if they will remain standing. The anticipation of a fall and element of surprise is part of the fun, but so is the different ways you can build, different colour and shape combinations. I’m not quite sure how to cram humour into this metaphor. But that’s there too, some of those blocks are real comedians.

[line drawing featuring a person in the corner with a concentrated look holding out a small building block. next to them towers a stack of different coloured blocks with scrawls on them.]

Audio collaging

For me this is the ultimate form of autistic word play. It can involve everything I’ve already written about here and so much more. It’s a perfect example of the idea of the sum being greater than the parts. The parts are those echolalic words and phrases, bits of scripting, intonation, pitch, speed, mutations, hums, shouts and whispers. The sum is a kind of audio-collage that contains all these parts but is heightened and expanded by the interactions between them. This can be solo play or collaborative. When it’s collaborative it’s neither monologue or dialogue but something else altogether. The player(s) will cut and paste concepts together, looping, repeating and rearranging. From the outside this might seem inscrutable or completely random, but it’s likely neither if you’re able to tune in; something that will take a lot of time, listening and detecting for most.

There are a few things that fuel this kind of play; sharing and exploring particular interests or ideas, making connections, playing with social conventions and expectations and humour.  The interest is often what starts the play off; chat about trains, Dora the explorer, road signs. Things which may seem mundane to someone who doesn’t share that interest but are a source of joy and inspiration to the individual. The connections are made through that out of the box or unexpected thinking, referencing another interest in an unexpected way. Exploring and discovering connections between things is something that is pleasing to many autistic people. When it comes to social conventions, despite popular belief, it’s not always the case that autistic people don’t recognise social conventions, often they just don’t see the point of following them or doing so causes stress and discomfort. For a child who spends all day at school trying to follow other people’s rules that aren’t intuitive to them, coming up with different answers to the questions “how are you” and acting it out with someone over and over might be very enjoyable.  Finally humour, perhaps the hardest thing to try and explain, because our personal sense of humour so intuitive. But there is definitely an anarchic, surreal and abstracted sense of humour that a lot of autistic people share and that can be a key part of this kind of play.

[Colourful line drawing of a person happily flapping their hands as different squiggles and shapes fly out of their mouth like fireworks. There is even a little surfer riding a yellow wave]

In Practice

If these are new ideas to you, well, that was probably a lot to take in. So I want to leave you with a few simple things you can keep in mind to facilitate and enable this kind of play and creativity.

Coping with repetition

A lot of people find repeated conversation, particularly questions annoying. If you feel that way then that’s okay, you’re definitely not alone. What is not okay is to treat the person who communicates and plays in this way as a nuisance. If you can’t engage then find a way to be honest about that, it might mean simply saying; “I’m sorry, I can’t do questions at the moment”. It may feel blunt or insensitive but its more damaging to act as if the person has done something wrong by ignoring them, talking over them or doing things like rolling your eyes and tutting. Feeling like the way you instinctually communicate, or play is wrong is extremely damaging to the individual. It’s also good to remember that autistic people spend a lot of time adapting to the way non-autistic people communicate and being expected to do so without question.

AAC & expressive communication

When someone uses a method of adaptive and augmentative communication (AAC), such as sign, sign assisted speech, pecs or a digital text to speech programme, the focus on making sure they use it correctly- where correctly means functionally- tends to be even heavier than with speech. Remember that they may use it for expressive communication too and they should be allowed to do this.

SpongeBob Who-Pants?

There’s a really easy way to engage and play with someone who communicates using echolalia and scripting; learn what they are talking about! It’s all already out there for you, often just a YouTube search away. Learn who Patrick or Peppa or Dora or Oliver is. (pink talking starfish best pal of SpongeBob SquarePants, Pig, Spanish speaking young girl with monkey friend, train friend of Thomas). Seeing a kids face light up when they realise you understand something about this world that they love and understand through is pure joy.

In Conclusion

Language can be a tool of play as well as pure communication, the term ‘word play’ is familiar to most of us, but the fact that it can mean so much maybe isn’t. Next time you come across a chid stim-talking, scripting and collaging… slow down, listen and see if you can tune in. If you’re lucky you might even get an invitation to join.

Play (and/or art?!) diary: Who framed the Pineapple

“the ambiance of play is by nature unstable. At any moment ‘ordinary life’ may prevail once again. The geographical limitations of play is even more striking that its temporal limitation. Every game takes place within the boundaries of its own special domain”


Guy Debord from On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Period of Time

A little while ago I was doing a session as a visiting artist for an outreach youth work programme, it consists of a couple of youth workers and an artist going out each week and doing a half hour session in four different outdoor locations around the local community. Each week children and young people show up in anticipation of the team arriving or drift over slowly from whatever other activities they’re engaged in if their interest is peaked. I’ve worked with the team a few times now and each time I’ve done something a little more abstract and been delighted in the ways the young people respond. This time I wanted to take an area of art theory that interests me and see if I could reinterpret it in a relevant and playful way.

Psychogeography is one, of many, areas of art theory that make people despair, it’s overly wordy with its key practitioners seeming to have spent more time writing about it than doing it and no one quite knows exactly what it’s meant to be, it can be applied to literature, performance art, politics, town planning and psychology… but, here is the definition which most interests me;

psychogeography is; ‘whole toy box full of playful inventive strategies for exploring cities…just about anything that takes pedestrians of their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape

Yes, of course, the definition that mentions play. Psychogeography is about the link between our emotional experience and our environment. Not a particular or special kind of environment; but any and every space in your everyday. It’s also a tool to explore or interrogate that environment and your relationship to it. Think of the writers who tell stories about and through their cities, the parkour runners or skateboarders who turn unnoticed and unremarkable aspects of an urban environment into part of their playground and whoever it is that keeps putting traffic cones on top of statues that you maybe never even looked at properly, that is, until they gained a bright orange hat. You were probably a psychogeographer once too… think of the child who studies every crack or feature of the pavement and turns navigating them into a game, the child who sees every bench, wall or curb as part of a never-ending climbing frame and the child whose imagination breathes life into inanimate structures and buildings.

In simplest terms perhaps psychogeography could be described as the art of being in a creative relationship with the space around you. This is a two-way relationship; it’s both taking inspiration from your environment, noticing the effect it has on you and putting inspiration into it through your creativity. It’s quite a wonderful thing to find yourself having a greater level of control over how you experience the space around you especially perhaps when you don’t have much choice over the environments you find yourself in.

On this day the environment was a slightly chilly residential area in Edinburgh and the tools were a pile of empty frames, three pineapples and a bunch of children’s creativity. My first proposition was that we turn the space into an art gallery. To do this they could take a frame and walk around the space looking for art. Some took a literal approach using things found in the environment to create art within a frame, tearing up grass and piling up twigs to create landscapes. Others jumped on the concept and pushed it beyond looking around their space in new ways; literally reframing aspects of their everyday space as art. Frames were held high, placed on the ground, balanced against fences, stacked on other frames. They were also climbed through and held up to frame each other looking through frames, looking through frames… The one thing every group had in common was that at some point someone would hold up a frame in front of their face and declare themselves art. I liked their confidence.

Photograph looking down on a pile of empty frames stacked haphazardly on top of each other on the ground. There are eight frames in a range of blacks and browns.

The next proposition was that they give each other a tour of this new art gallery. Here they were to walk around the newly imagined space and tell each other about their work. I gave prompts where needed; “what do you like about this”, “does the piece have a name?”. Children would listen to each other briefly before continuing to experiment, stepping into each other’s frames, directing each other and hanging frames from bodies.

The final proposition came with a request, for this part they weren’t to talk. The proposition itself was non-verbal, and, as I looked around with faux-sternness to check they weren’t chatting, I walked across to our non-descript black bag and slowly, one by one, pulled three pineapples out.  Placing them on the ground and I would step away, giving a nod of ‘go on then’ to my mostly quiet spectators. For the couple of groups who really followed the no-talking request the moment when I pulled out the pineapples gained an extra level of absurdity. With eyes widening and jaws dropping they looked to each other in confusion, amusement and excitement.  Not being able to communicate in their usual way completely changed the atmosphere and possibilities of the space. Suddenly a pineapple or two against the backdrop of the everyday was a fascinating concept. The pineapples were absorbed into the narrative as they were moved, balanced, rolled, stacked and of course, framed. Two ultimately met an unfortunate fate.

Here I was playing with the idea that by creating absurdity or abstraction you create an opportunity for art and play, and, if this is all it takes it follows that art can be created anywhere and everywhere.  In this case, the abstraction was created by firstly changing the the social rules of the space through taking away speech and then behaving unexpectedly. They couldn’t ask questions or comment in their usual way which could have quickly normalised the situation instead they were held in the moment of absurdity and, able to consciously decide whether to go with it or not. They very much did.

Play Diary: the Window

I look up and see three faces pushed up against the glass of the main doorway. The faces belong to three small, blond children waiting to be granted entry to the play hall whilst their adults do the admin bit. What makes me smile particularly is not that they’re very cute (which they are), or even that they look very excited (which, they don’t exactly, it’s more curious-anticipation meets threatening-boredom) but, that instead of just looking through the glass, seeing what’s going on, sizing up the other kids etc.; they have opted to squash their faces right up against it. They’re definitely going for maximum surface area contact, skin to glass, I assume at the expense of actually being able to see properly. One of them has glasses and as a glasses wearer myself I have to admire his effort, they can be a big obstacle between a face and full window immersion. Somehow though, this kid’s managing.

Unable to resist such a play opportunity I put my half-built egg box marionette to one side and walk over. Initially they scarper to hide behind the legs of their still busy adults but when I crouch down and peer through the window they creep back, one at a time. I tap the glass they duck, I drum my fingers they drum back, I place my hands in front of their eyes and they move back and forth until they escape long enough to see me pull a face. New game, showing teeth, sticking out tongues, hiding faces, reappearing. The smallest is crouched in the corner looking up and me as I continue to play with the biggest. The second I dart my eyes towards her she bursts out laughing and puts a hand on the glass, we tap fingers lightly and continue to laugh as I duck in and out of eye-line. The middle reappears for a second, sticks out a tongue and disappears again. The biggest suddenly bangs a palm loudly above my head, a little harder perhaps than he meant as he looks somehow surprised and worried. I smile and knock gently opposite where his palm had been and we’re back to the beginning.

As the group prepares to come in I move out of the way and step back into the hall. I’m forgotten by two but the biggest runs in and immediately spots me; without the glass between us he’s suddenly shy but he gives me a little wave before darting outside where more unexplored territories wait. The window is filthy.

A couple of fantastically messy paint play ideas

Everybody loves paint. Aside, perhaps, from the parents of very well dressed children, but they can learn! Paint is never boring. It provides visual, tactile and olfactory sensory stimulation, it can be mixed, thrown, experimented with and can be used to transform the play space. Paint can be a play thing in itself or be a part of a larger creative and messy play. Today I thought I’d share a couple of my favourite paint based play ideas I’ve used in the playground.

Car Paint Shop

You know those orange and yellow fisher price cars which have been around forever? Well, they don’t have to be orange and yellow anymore! Here I set up a ‘workshop’ area using a tarp and some parachutes and just left the cars there with a bunch of paint. This went down incredibly well. Its messy, it uses something familiar and it allows a sense of getting-away-with-something. A bonus of this was towards the end of the day we took the cars out and turned it into a car wash activity with sponges, bubbles and plenty of water.

Moon Boots

Here I got hold of a bunch of big yellow car wash sponges and attached them to the bottom of different sized pairs of wellies with elastic. I wanted to create a sensory experience with paint that the children probably hadn’t experienced before. The sponges changed how they had to balance which gave it a challenge i hadn’t anticipated. I laid out trays of paint and let them get stuck in. Like the activity above this one had a sense of getting-away-with-something as they got to stand in paint and cover the playground with it.

Play Diary: Telling Stories

I know a child who speaks in headlines and snippets from stories of mischief and chaos. He mixes characters, plot points and slapstick action with highlights from days in his life. Though it may sound like a random collage it’s never outside of a certain rationality; rules and facts of life drawn from the workings of traffic signals, YouTube videos of flash floods and the strange things adults say and do. When you talk to him in the Now, ask him to do things, give him choices, and enquire about his day he is on alert. The more you ask of him the more panic can start to creep into his voice. He’ll answer in questions or in seemingly off-shoot statements. When you talk to him in his vocabulary of stories he relaxes, he hops, flaps and smiles. When you speak his language well trust forms and slowly but joyfully you move from telling him his own stories too creating stories together. What may look to an outsider like something repetitive and rigid is actually a very niche kind of play. We’re playing with building blocks made of phrases, actions and noises. Sometimes we’re rearranging them and introducing new blocks and sometimes we’re bringing out reliable structures and colour combinations, just enjoying them for what they are.

mr-bean-21

A frequent ‘building block’ in our stories. Mr Bean sits waving from an armchair tied to the roof of an old green mini-cooper car driving alongside a green field.

 

I once created a story tent for a group of children in the corner of an open high ceilinged, drafty gym hall scattered with scooters, balls and rackets. For some children their playful spirit is like oxygen, a gas, it seamlessly grows and shrinks to fill and take over any space. For some it’s more like water, a liquid, in certain spaces it is still and unmotivated, stuck, but in the right environment it can flow effortlessly and spectacularly. Out in the hall these different kinds of children might not work together, some so much more naturally suited than others, but in this colourful cosy micro-environment different children could flourish together. Sharing and exploring this new space and its purpose created about ten magical minutes of joint play. They took turns as they told each other stories wrapped in blankets holding torches. Accompanying each other with drum rolls and scary faces. Three children sat up in a circle, one child lay at the back in the cosiest corner maybe listening and another sat to one side drawing zombies. But all experienced the space together or parallel to each other in their own way.

14031746_165318307225806_1381797089_n

The Story Tent: A montage of four photographs of a parachute den play space. The first shows the den from a distance. You can see it is built from two colourful parachutes hung together creating a high sloping ceiling. A comfy blue mat pokes out from the den. The second shows the inside. There is a pile of story and fact books on the mat. Loose pieces of fabric a piled up and a small drum hangs from the ceiling. The third shows a upright board within the den which has been covered in paper for drawing. Assorted coloured pens lie on the floor and you can see there are lots of drawings that have been done including one which says “beware of zombies!”. The fourth is a close up of a drawing which says “yard” in a blue cloud with red hand drawn underneath

In many ways these are two completely different tales of play but they both use the idea and tool of the story. Perhaps the most human product. The need to hear, read, discover and share stories seems to be universal. In play, stories have many uses, but the way I use them most is too provide structure. The idea of structure might seem to go against the ideas of play, of freedom of movement and imagination. But not every child can access that freedom with ease, especially outside their private environment. Forgetting this prevents us from recognising and allowing space for certain children’s play. For a lot of children I work with the world is a chaotic and confusing place, especially the social world which is so important in play spaces. To be able to play they must first feel safe which requires feeling able to communicate with those around them and feeling able to understand their environment enough to focus on something else. The first child I talk about above is a great example of how finding a shared communication allows for play, it not only makes him feel understood but allows him to understand me and creates the opportunity for me to be interesting. The following group of children were able to engage in a different kind of play when within an environment that made sense to all. It was the structure provided by stories that allowed for this.

The structure I’m talking about here isn’t a very fixed or elaborate one. A story has to begin somewhere, it has to be headed somewhere and there needs to be some form of conflict or point of multiple possibility. It’s simply something the child can jump off from and come back to at any point should things become confusing or overwhelming. It’s a part of feeling safe. I think we all use some kind of structure even if it’s just as a starting point, a way to transition into play. A lot of children manage this for themselves, others may need a little help or time to learn the skill for themselves. In my work I’ll often jump into play at a point where children are becoming distressed and/or someone is likely to come to harm, or when an activity is becoming to unsafe and I need to provide guidance. My way in will be bringing the play back to the original spark or idea, encouraging progressing, asking what’s next? What happens if? So this time machine, are you going backwards or forwards? Have you meddled in the past too much? You must fix it! What I’m doing is reminding them of the story, bringing them back to the narrative to help resolve conflict or find a new way forward.

supermarket-trolley-1

A time machine i often come across at work looks suspiciously like this supermarket trolley…

The act of telling a story is a way of providing a structure without boxing a child in. It provides a rhythm and familiarity that the child recognises allowing and giving permission for them to take control. This can work whether you are part of the story or simply providing the environment where it can happen. It’s a kind of ‘in-road’ to play when be able to play isn’t straightforward, for whatever reason that may be. Stories can take you anywhere.