When I fell pregnant towards the end of 2003, I was reading endless amounts of pregnancy books. ‘What to expect once your child is born’ type of books. One particular book explained all of the milestones that each child is expected to hit, and when. I remember clearly that it said at around 18 months old children should start developing imaginative play. Holding a phone to their ear, pretending to feed a dolly, pushing cars along and saying “brum brum”, pretending to drink from an empty cup were just some of the examples it gave. It then led on to older more complex play, tea parties, pretending to cook and making up stories.

When my son was born 14 years ago, I eagerly awaited the time to come where we could play together. When he was around one year old, I bought him some chunky wooden cars, five of them in different colours. At first he just banged them against the table and chewed on them – as you would expect at that age. I would everyday model how to use them whilst he was holding them. “Brum Brum Beep Beep” I would say, while pushing a car along the table. Still anxiously waiting each month, for when he would use them as intended.

18 months came and went, and still he was only banging them against the table. 23 months came and still only banging them against a table and lining them up. It was around the same time that the health visitor came out to do his 2 year check up. She gave my son 3 bricks, and asked him to make a tower, she modelled it first, my son took the bricks to the windowsill and lined them up, tapping his finger on top of each one over and over again.

The health visitor gave him a spoon and plate and sat a teddy on the floor – “feed the teddy” she said. He walked over to the windowsill with the spoon, plate and teddy, and added them to the line, tapping each one repetitively. Pulling out some pencils and paper the health visitor said “draw a picture” my son took each pencil and added it to the line on the windowsill, again one after the other tapping each item. By this point my son had already been referred to the child development centre, and was waiting to be seen, as he hadn’t hit quite a few milestones.

He received his autism diagnosis aged two, and his play continued to be repetitive, and non-imaginative. He would just walk around the rooms, collecting items, and making big lines on the windowsill are across the room. If he wasn’t making lines, he would spin wheels on cars whilst rocking back and forth. I stopped worrying so much, as I saw how happy he actually was just doing these things. His happy squeals at each wheel spin. At around two and a half, as we were passing a market stall he grabbed a ball of wool. He rubbed it against his face and the laughter and squeals began. I purchased the wool for him and home we went.

He spent every waking hour unravelling the wool and scooping it all back up rubbing it all over his face. It never left his side day or night, so after a week I took him to buy another ball of wool and we came home, he unravelled both balls and them mashed them up together and held them day and night, even in the bath they had to stay at the side of the bath. He would get distressed if he couldn’t see them or touch them. As the months went on, he collected more balls of wool, and if a piece of wool snapped off he would put it on his windowsill in a pile. Each year the mash up of wool got bigger and bigger – it is now around 5ft in length. There are 6 Tupperware boxes full of pieces of wool that have fallen off over the last 12 years. All neatly piled on his windowsill. The wool now has names, ‘Fluffy and Blanky’. They are his world. They are his life. I worry day in and day out that something happens to them. I have no idea what would happen to my son if they got damaged or lost. Thankfully, at their size it’s hard to lose, but he would be broken if something happened to them. I can’t go and buy a replacement as he made it, and he knows exactly where each colour of wool should be. 

In the last twelve months, my son has started to play with WWE figures, although he doesn’t generate his own play, he is starting to copy the moves he sees on the WWE wrestling show on his figures as he is watching it. This is a huge leap from previous years. He may be fourteen, but he is still developing and learning so much.

If I look at my daughter who is 4, and also has autism, she finds copying play much easier than my son did at that age. Although she spends most of her time just lining toys up or putting them into categories, she will copy modelled play sometimes. The difficult thing with my daughter is finding something that interests her, she isn’t too interested in toys, she is more into sensory play, so we make dough, have dried rice out on the table, dried lentils, light up toys, bounce on the gym ball, or drawing – that is something she is extremely talented at.

I have learnt not to worry so much. I do play sessions numerous times a day, where I sit with certain toys and I play with them, sometimes it sparks my daughter’s interest, and she will copy pouring the teapot or copy feeding a teddy bear, but other times she just wants to take everything and line them up. The repetitiveness can be a bit draining sometimes, but I have to look at it from their view point.

Repetitiveness often makes people with autism feel calm. They can predict what will happen, because they have done the same thing many times before. It helps them make sense in a world that often doesn’t make sense to them. So long as they are happy and safe, I look forward to seeing how they develop their own sense of play as the years go on.

You can read more of Yasmin's blogs at - Sugar spice and all things autism

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