Parallel Play

That’s me, on the left.

When I first started reading about Asperger’s Syndrome as it reveals itself in females, I noticed a particular term, Parallel Play. Since I was studying the syndrome in regard to myself, I tried to remember how I played as a little girl, to see if that term applied to me.

I remember that my very favorite thing to play was shop keeper. I loved miniatures and I loved miniature food, like the little “cans” of Campbell’s Alphabet Soup with miniature, true-to-life labels on them. I loved the idea that my shop would have all kinds of tiny food, arranged neatly on the shelves, with the labels perfectly lined up for the shopper’s easy view. Ironically, I was perfectly happy as a store keeper with no customers. My joy was display and presentation. (I guess it’s no wonder then, that some of my happiest years in the work force–though the pay was low– was when I did window display for a store in downtown Winston-Salem back in the 1990s, where I lasted six years, a record for me).

I was also drawn to my brothers’ Tonka trucks and the idea of moving earth, on a miniature scale. I loved moving the earth into rows with the buckets and back hoes that actually worked (the toys I liked were based on how “real” they were or how “real” they worked). Funny how, until searching back in time in regard to Asperger’s, I had forgotten all about this! Ford, my oldest brother is about five years older than I and JD is about two years younger. I was drawn to their toys instead of my older sister’s toys. Laina is three years older than I and she was very maternal even as a young child. She enjoyed playing with Barbies; I enjoyed playing with the Barbie case, which our mother had made into a little closet, with miniature clothes, clothes hangers, and drawers that actually worked.

I did play with regular dolls. I was obsessed with real-life babies and baby dolls were an approximation of real babies (they were “realer” than Barbie dolls, which I thought were absolute nonsense; who’s ever seen anybody who looked like Barbie? And Ken Doll? Can you say, “Ugh!” To this day, I am physically repulsed by men who are overly groomed or who have what I call plastic hair). I had three baby dolls that made it into my heart. “Sugar Plum” was my first. Though I named her, I always thought her name was a bit cliché. Then came “Egele” (pronounced “AY-guh-lay”) so named from the heights of my imagination and my love of beautiful sounds. And last, was a boy doll (in my mind, not anatomically) named “David.” I distinctly remember that in fairness to each doll, I tried to divvy out my attention equally and actually felt guilty for “replacing” one doll with the other.

Reading has been a passion that has stood the test of time through all of the stages of my life except for a period when it was squelched (during my second marriage- a story for another time). Books were my escape. They were my friends. I think maybe I fell for the smell of an old book and the soft feel of well-worn paper more than the actual characters in the books (I didn’t appreciate modern books that are put together with cheap glue and their spine falls apart sometimes before the book is finished). At any rate, I could read a book in a crowd, while I was with two people, in the car, while on a pony, on the back of a bicycle, or walking home from school, which I did every day in middle school. People and events around me faded into the background when I had a book.

When I spent time with other girls, it is apparent to me now that I was usually the third wheel, a position that worked well for me because it allowed me to not-lead, not-follow, but remain “out there,” while spending time around other people. I refer to a quote I heard when I was a young adult: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way,” which, while I objected to such a narrow categorization of personality types, I always felt that I was one of those get-out-of-the-way people. Third Wheel allowed me to be part of the group without the pressures of being leader or follower. Being Third Wheel allowed me to seem to play with the others, while really doing my own thing. I learned a lot about how to act by observing Sandra and Marissa, my friends from first through fourth grades. I’m not sure what they got out of the arrangement.

When I went to college in my late twenties, I made friends with two wonderful women, Kim and Robette. They both had what I think of as balanced brains; they were really good at math/science AND English/literature-related courses. As an unbalanced learner (I was weak in math, very strong in English/literature), I loved hanging around them. At the time, I sort of recognized my position as Third Wheel but I thought it had to do with my lack of commonality with them, since they were members of the Motherhood Club and I wasn’t. With them, I was the kooky, quirky, auxiliary person. The comedian. It was an easy friendship.

This pattern of Third Wheel to two best friends follows me still. Lisa and Phyllis, two current friends, both have “best friends” other than myself. I have never really been envious of that, probably because what I can give is on par with what is usually expected of a Third Wheel.

And now, in my happy (third) marriage, even before I discovered the Asperger contribution to my personality, I have noticed that I tend to enjoy watching a movie on my smart phone more than I do on the bigger TV screen with my husband. He is a member of the ADHD Club and is an only child who grew up sort of in his own world both physically and psychologically. Sometimes we will be in the same room, enjoying the comfort of physical proximity, each of us doing our own thing. You can see us at any given time and one of us will be wearing head phones or ear buds!

For me, whatever endeavor I am in the middle of, I do with intensity. That intensity determines that I can only do one thing at a time. I can only watch the movie. I can only talk with someone. I can’t really do both at the same time (what’s with talking during a movie, anyway?).

If you had asked me ten years ago if I were a team player, I would have said, “Yes!” I would have given you an illustration I still love. I call it the hay-getting-up analogy. If you’ve ever helped anyone get up hay in the summertime, it’s wonderful. Everyone works together toward a common goal of getting the hay into the barn before it rains. It’s usually a big crowd of people, there’s busy-ness and a little bit of urgency. I have always loved being part of a festive endeavor like this. An old-time quilting bee has the same appeal.

But if you think about hay harvest (and group quilt-making), each person has her own separate responsibility. Each person does his own part while others do theirs, a concurrent endeavor like the gears working in an old clock. I now realize that hay harvesting is Parallel Play at its best.

So, yes, I recognize that I am a parallel player by nature and a “team player” as long as I get to do one part of a job that still allows me to play all by myself.