Developmental specialists and pediatricians often use the lack of dramatic play as a marker when diagnosing autism. I have spoken to many a parent whose child has been denied a spectrum diagnosis because the child engages in dramatic play (all day and night). What the "experts" (and I use that term loosely) sometimes fail to realize is that the type of hyper-focused dramatic play that some children with autism actually engages in is not the same as the developmentally appropriate "let me figure out who I want to be in this world" dramatic play exhibited by neuro-typical children.
My son has hyper-focused on many themes and objects over the years (he is now ten). It began with books (not so bad), and then moved to balls, then cars and dinosaurs. But his longest running theme was that he was a super hero (or, in his case, often a super villain with a heart of gold named "Bad Guy"). He first moved from Scooby Doo characters, to Ninja Turtles then to Ben Ten and beyond. There were many days that he would refuse to answer us unless we spoke in a character voice (my throat has never recovered from the years I have spent as Shaggy and Michelangelo..."Dude!")
So, one can see how this dramatic play on steroids can delay or confuse service providers and parents when diagnosing autism. I don't remember anywhere, on any assessment questionnaires being asked, "Does your child engage in dramatic play only to the exclusion of ANYTHING else?"
I have met many other children since my son's diagnosis that pretend to be something; all day, all night. There are princesses and dinosaurs, super-heroes and even a nuclear scientist. The bottom line is, should we seek to 'extinguish' this pattern of behavior? Or should we build a bridge to the child by playing along (my personal favorite).
Of all of the literature I have read on this topic, the answer, like everything else, really depends on who is writing the article. It seems that in ABA world, hyper-focusing is a bad thing...a "preferred activity" that should be minimized. I completely understand that we don't really want a world of autistic adults running around in capes and tiaras, but honestly, we already have neuro-typical adults who are just super-spoiled and are being taught by their parents that they are the center of the universe...so maybe we wouldn't so much mind that(surely I jest...maybe)?
What we want now are children who have more moments of happiness, love and calm than of chaos, meltdowns and sadness. What we want in the future are adults who have the same as above and that are able to contribute to society in some meaningful way. I have seen the spark of joy in a child's eye when someone plays by that child's rules...even if for only a few moments. That's bridge-building material if I say so myself.
What do you think? Stop the hyper-focus or play along? (By the way, my son began to self-regulate the super-hero play at 8 years-old and has now moved on to video games...ummm...just like most other 10 year-old boys...imagine that!:)