The Panda Game

by Kelly Allen

Like most parents caring for an Autistic child, my husband and I spent many years wondering if our son, Josh, would ever really communicate with other people. His lack of verbal skills and all consuming imagination made it difficult for anyone to “get through” to him. For Josh, people were only a distraction; and although he could learn to tolerate them, he wasn’t really connecting.

As Josh grew older he learned to look people in the eye, take turns when playing, listen to others and understand facial expressions better. However, it wasn’t until the Panda Game that Josh discovered how other people actually contribute to his world and make it a better place.

When Josh’s little sister was about five years old, she developed a deep love for panda bears. She loved the bears’ round bodies and slow gentle movements. She began to point them out everywhere she saw them, whether stuffed animals in stores or pictures on boxes. By time Hannah was six years old, she created an imaginary panda that she referred to as “Panda” and began attributing personality traits to it.

Josh took notice and wondered what Panda would do if it ever encountered one of his imaginary characters in the fictional world he had created. Would Panda be a fighter? Would it be a coward? So Josh asked Hannah to play a game with him. They called the game “The Panda Game” because the central character would be Hannah’s imaginary panda. Josh would give Hannah a scenario or scene.

“Your panda is surrounded by 10 mean looking warriors at the North Castle”

Then he would ask Hannah to describe for him what her panda would do in that situation. Hannah loved the idea and immediately decided on Panda’s reaction.

“My panda would say ‘Hello!’ and give the warriors a BIG HUG!”

Josh was delighted! They continued to play the game constantly, only referring to it as “The Panda Game.” Over time, this game evolved into a complex world with recurring characters, special powers, treasures to find and dangers to avoid. For the first time, others were not only sharing in Josh’s world, they were allowed to contribute and affect what went on in that world!

The Panda Game became the first real link between Josh’s internal world and the real world around him. Josh and Hannah have been able to share adventures together and laugh together in ways that they had never experienced before. They also discovered how engaging their imaginations can be! When they play The Panda Game, long car rides are not such a big deal. Even going without the TV or game machine is not as bad when they start playing their game.

If you’re interested in trying this game with your own child, please keep a few things in mind:

1. The only way this game works is if you’re willing to enter into the world that your Autistic child lives in. It is not as much about “pulling them out” rather it is “entering into” their world and building a connection and kindred spirit with your child on their own terms.

2. The game must always reflect your child’s individuality and should never conform to any preconceived ideas you may have. Let your child lead. If your child doesn’t seem to have much to say or is not interested in playing any games, don’t push. You could ask questions (“What toy do you have?” “Do you like that book?”), or even just play quietly next to your child so he or she understands that you are not there to “intrude” but to “contribute.”

In the end, always remember your child is unique. The ultimate goal of the Panda Game is to discover the qualities that make your child special and to help him share those qualities with others.