“Do you want to be dragons?” the little three-year-old asked his friend, jumping from foot to foot. Off they ran, raising wings behind them, soaring around the splash pad.
Sam, my two-year-old, was filling his little cup with water from the fountains.
For almost an hour, the dragons roared and rolled. They breathed fire. They ate dragon food. They staged epic dragon death scenes.
Sam was oblivious, but I couldn’t stop watching. They were magnificent.
Sam was diagnosed with autism at just 14 months, so pretend play wasn’t part of his assessment, but it was part of my older son Mikey’s.
Mrs. Read, has he ever been a dragon?
Well, that wasn’t the question exactly.
What she really said was, “What will Mikey do if you try to pretend with him?”
“He will watch you,” I said. “Like you’re a TV.”
Across the room, the psych assistant was sitting at a small table with Mike. “Choo choo!” she began, pushing a little block-train across the table. He stared at her. “Push your train with me!” she encouraged. He glanced down, then back up. Didn’t move.
“The baby is crying!” she tried next, picking up a lifelike doll. “What should we do?” She was animated; he just stared.
This evaluator felt distinctly uncomfortable with the subject’s strange responses, she later wrote in her report.
So no, Mikey was never a dragon. Or a puppy, or a kitty cat.
Once upon a time I was a Theatre major, and pretending to be other things was one of my great joys. I could have pretended to be an Autism Mom on stage better than I play one in real life. Pretend Autism Mom would be ever patient and kind, long-suffering but wise, always ready to lend one more hand, despite her plate being so full.
Real Me is always questioning and worrying, selfish and tired, just snarky enough to keep the cruel world at bay.
The dragons whiz by, and I’m making small talk with other moms, pretending hard that I don’t feel the sharp little ache in my heart that pops up when life reminds me that my kid’s childhoods aren’t what I expected.
Today it’s the dragons. Other days, a little league team celebrating at a restaurant, kids lining up excited for their first day of soccer, kids filing into drama class at the Y.
I don’t know yet if Sam will ever be a dragon. For today, he has his routine. Fill the cup with water, pour it in my hands. Forever and ever, amen.
Other kids pass in and out of the dragon play, learning to navigate this world of pretend.
They are learning, of course, to become us: we adults are dragons in the face of injustice, kittens accepting a compliment, just-born puppies cuddling the ones we love.
We pretend we’re confident on a first date. Pretend we’re the perfect person for the job. Pretend we know what’s best for our kids, all the time.
So many roles, so much pretending. And if you can’t pull out the right face at the right moment? The world eats people alive for less.
So, in our house, the blocks are not trains. The dolls do not cry, the knights do not fight. Sam and I sometimes slurp our plastic ice cream, but Mikey reminds us that it is not real.
Is this autism’s challenge, or its gift: people who have no interest in pretending, and are simply themselves, all the time?
At the splash pad, one dragon has died tragically. His friend breathes fire, which, thank goodness, magically revives him. A little girl runs squealing from their winged pursuit.
Sam fills his cup; pours it out. Fills again, pours it out.
“Mommy! Mommy!” he says. It’s one of his few words that comes out just right, every time. He points to the water he’s poured into in my hands and I splash him. He laughs uproariously, a hearty belly laugh he’s had since he was a baby.
He runs past the dragons to fill his cup again.
And you know what? There is no pretending here: he is happy.
He’s two, so this is not a deep existential happiness.
This is the happiness of the moment: jumping water, space to run, a Mommy to keep coming back to.
What else do we need?, I ask my over-active, over-worried brain.
The dragons Sam doesn’t see can’t hurt him.
In his little world, in this moment, he has water, a cup, and a Mommy to splash out any fire dragons breathe.