“Deficits in abstract thinking” or differences in abstract thinking?

Disclaimer: Our experience is our own, and I don’t pretend to know the capabilities of all 7-year-old boys with autism.

We sat side-by-side at the little table, feeding the teddy bear with a spoon, as the smiling therapist kneeled beside us. He was learning through structured play; I was learning how to facilitate structured play.

Even as I saw potential for this strategy in other areas of Henry’s life, I knew one thing: My child would never play with stuffed animals. Period.

It was an example, really. An exercise. No one in the room expected Henry would love playing with stuffed animals. But it made me think.

Will he ever understand and participate in abstract play?


Yesterday, I climbed the stairs to the sounds of Henry playing in his train room. I turned the corner and saw a beautiful tunnel created from Magna-Tiles. We smiled at each other as I told him I was proud of his sculpture. 

In our home Legos aren’t for building. Legos are coal and rocks and cargo for trains.

In our home wooden blocks and Magna-Tiles create bridges, ramps, and sheds.

In our home anything cardboard becomes a tunnel.

In our home we’ve (almost) stopped wasting money on toys we know won’t be loved and encourage his passions instead. 

This is Henry’s creative play. This is his abstract play. He rifles through both the closet and the trash for new ways to build on what he already loves. He doesn’t not understand how to play make-believe; he simply does so in unconventional ways. He avoids action figures for the same reason I avoid the gym; he doesn’t like it. He’s not incapable; he’s decisive.

Maybe autistic people don’t have trouble with abstract thinking. Maybe they just do it differently.

New here? Glad you made it! I write about my unique joys and challenges as Mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick­-witted, train-loving, autistic 10-­year­-old with an infectious smile. I long to encourage autism parents and empower all to see inclusivity doesn’t have to be difficult - it can be beautiful. Like what you see? Sign up here to receive news and occasional freebies just for insiders.

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