Last night, I saw my son pretend. It may seem like a small thing to you, but to me, it was everything. Miles came home from Africa not knowing how to play. Sure, he enjoys his toys and can push a toy car around for hours, but he never could figure out how to really play with his toys, or join in a game with the other kids. I know that he's smart enough to, but there has always been a disconnect in his brain that won't allow him to see objects as anything other than what they are. Other children his age could pretend to be a baby when they are playing family with some bigger kids. Or other children could pick up a banana and pretend it was a phone. Not Miles. A banana is a banana is a banana, and the only thing you do with it is eat it.
When we adopted a toddler, it never occurred to me that abstract play would be something that would take so long to "pick up". I always just assumed that kids were hard wired to know how to play. I was very wrong. Not having ample opportunity to explore and pretend in those critical development years really affects those things that we just assume are supposed to come "naturally" to children.
I think I never saw this disconnect in Miles' brain more than when we were working on his fear of animals with his psychologist. We came up with a program to help desensitize and rewire Miles' thinking to see our dog as part of the family and not something to be feared (I think I'll post a video later of how we did this). The process was agonizingly slow. We began with using an oven mitt that looked like a dog. It was very obviously not a dog but when we pretended to bark and made the over mitt "lick" Miles like our dog would, that oven mitt became a real dog in his mind. My son went weeks were he was terrified of an oven mitt because he couldn't distinguish the difference between reality and play. The lines were jumbled and he just couldn't make sense of an environment where things weren't as they were supposed to be.
Unless his play revolved around pushing a car on the same path of floor day in and day out, it was awkward and unnatural. I had gotten used to seeing his brother line up action figures creating scenarios of all kinds and making up a whole world in his head. Miles just couldn't do that. His world is very black and white and he still (even almost 2 years later) often reverts back to his survival instincts to make sure that his needs will get met. I think that in his mind, there was no room for pretending. Why make up an alternate world when you were still genuinely worried that maybe you wouldn't get what you needed in the real world?
When he started school about a month ago, he went through a week long period of severe regression. Miles couldn't "remember" how to walk or eat. He drooled when he took a drink like he couldn't remember that the next step was to swallow. He stopped using the toilet. He was aggressive with his siblings. He was putting his shoes on the wrong feet on purpose. He stopped making eye contact. For a long time, I wondered if we were doing the right thing for our son, sending him to school so young so that he could get the therapies that he needs. He slowly adjusted to school and began thriving again, not only at home, but people in his school have told us that he is just so happy and smiley to be there. He seems to really be firing on all cylinders and I think that a new environment was just what he needed. Spending daily structured time away from me where he can see that I always come back has helped to solidify our bond for him. It's given him a practical, tangible lesson in permanence. Last night, it was confirmed to me that we absolutely made the right choice for HIM.
Last night was just a typical night. One kid was doing homework, one kid was watching TV. And lo and behold, we looked over at Miles and there he was- sitting on the floor with an action figure, making it talk and fly. He was in his own little world. A world that he thought through and created. A world that he allowed himself to slip into because he was comfortable and settled enough in the real world. I just looked at him for a while. My sweet little son, who is usually so hyper vigilant that he knows when a person walks in a room, had no idea I was even there, watching him make Batman climb up the steps and run away from some unknown pursuer. He was having so much fun and was actually lost in his play for the first time.
It's the little moments that make this journey of adoption so amazing. The looks, the connections, the setbacks that so often make you realize just how much progress had been made, the love that takes time to grow and the moments where Batman can make a little boy feel like he's right where he's supposed to be.