Lack of imagination in autism is not what you may think

What do you think of when you think of imagination? Do you think of children making up games, people writing fiction stories, or perhaps role play? It is true that all of these, and so much more, require imagination yet imagination is so much more than just forming new ideas and being creative.
Many autistic children (and adults) struggle with a special type of imagination called social imagination.


Firstly let me explain what this is NOT:
1. It is NOT the ability to be creative. 


In fact many people with autism are highly gifted artists or musicians and have unique and highly talented ways of presenting their ability.


If your child is diagnosed with autism it does NOT mean they will not be good at drawing, or be able to express themselves in creative ways.


2. It is NOT a lack of ability to play with toys or act out made up scenarios.


Children with autism can play at feeding a doll, or play with trains or bring plastic figures to life. Autism may mean their play is more repetitive or scripted from TV programmes but lack of social imagination in itself does not mean your child will never play with a toy phone or dress as a nurse.


3. It is NOT going to stop your child writing stories they have made up, telling lies or building unique structures out of lego bricks.
So now we know what social imagination IS’NT let’s talk about what it IS:
Social imagination allows us to understand and predict the behaviour of other people. It also helps us to make sense of abstract ideas, and to imagine situations outside our immediate daily routine.
Lack of social imagination is why so many people with autism struggle with change: they just can not imagine things happening any other way.
Social imagination is the ability to watch others and work out their intentions, their thoughts and interpret what they may do next. This is why children with autism (and adults) find social situations such a challenge at times. They struggle to put themselves inside another persons head and therefore they prefer to watch rather than join in.
Both of my children have autism. On their own they can entertain themselves, make up their own games and even play structured games with rules very well. The difficulty lies when they are expected to play alongside other children because people are very unpredictable and may play in an entirely different way to what my child is used to. That ability to adapt and understand others is known as lack of social imagination.
Lack of social imagination means they can not foresee what might happen next. This is why those with autism can not see danger: they simply can not imagine anything happening that has never happened before. They have never drowned before so how could that happen? They have never been knocked over by a car so how could that happen? Even if they have had some danger happen like an injury that only happened in one place in one particular chain of events so to them it will not ever happen again. This makes lack of social imagining dangerous.
Lack of social imagining means they struggle to see the future. They can not imagine ever moving to a different school or a new house or having a different carer. They can not imagine their bedroom painted a different colour or someone else moving into the family. This is why it is so important to help children with autism (and adults) when anything changes.
Lack of social imagining means they need support to face new situations. Going to new places, meeting new people, even road diversions all require our brain to be adaptable and without the ability to ‘imagine’ that everything will work itself out you can see why so many people with autism will struggle.
Lack of social imagination  is also why my daughter has no concept when others are bored listening to her talk on and on about her latest fixation. Not only can she not imagine that everyone else would love Thomas Tank Engine as much as she does but she also can not imagine that you would want to do something else if she doesn’t. She doesn’t want to cook dinner so why should I? For my non verbal son he sees no reason why he can not go and watch lifts at 3am since he can not imagine that the rest of the world is sleeping.
Lack of social imagination is why my daughter is so bound up with anxiety. It is why she has so many difficulties trying new foods (unable to imagine if they will taste good or not) and why she has significant challenges socially.
Yet she makes a great pirate looking out to sea in the playground as you can see from the photo. She had great fun telling me about rescuing people from the nearby houses and looking for treasure under the swings. She has plenty imagination it’s just social imagining she struggles with. People may think they are the same but they are not.


35 thoughts on “Lack of imagination in autism is not what you may think

  1. Thanks for this clear and succinct discription – I now get it ! My son (6) has autistic traits but totally failed diagnosis – he has a fantastic imagination and many friends, your article helped me understand him a bit better thank-you

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a brilliant explanation! Thank you so much!
    So, an autistic child may be perfectly able to create their own characters with various different personality traits etc and role-play those with their toys, but they can’t predict how a real-life person reacts in the situation they have been playing out?
    And now we know what it’s like, how do we address it? Can social imagination be taught? And are there ways to reduce anxiety that stems from lack of social imagination?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Let me try answer some of those as best I can. Yes they can imagine their own situations but have no idea what to do in ‘real life’. How do we address it? The answer is two fold: understanding the difficulties and working individually with the person at their level to help them. Social stories, real life experience and play therapy can all help but time and patience will always be required. The best way to reduce anxiety I have found is reassurance and guidance and contact praise.
      Of course we all know everyone is different so this won’t be as simple as it all sounds.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

    • From an autistic perspective: honestly, what helps me is experience. I can’t predict possibilities out of the blue, but I CAN recognise situations that are similar to things that I’ve experienced or I’ve read about in the past. Exposure to experience, including reading and watching stories (GOOD stories, with realistic characters and character development), is how I learn about different possibilities and reactions that might occur. I never had access to “social stories” as a child, but I imagine that sort of structure would work really well – as long as the story and outcome are realistic. Also giving the child a chance to discuss the outcome, and think about things like if different people were involved the outcome might have been different, can help build that “database” of ways to understand what might happen in the real world.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is really helpful and about the best explanation of lack of social imagination. It makes planning a future really hard, too. Breaking information into manageable chunks helps lots. Weirdly, I can do this for others, as in my children when they were little and years before any of us received diagnosis. It’s just hard doing it for myself.

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  4. This is really interesting because our son didn’t get a dx of autism for the reasons you listed as not being above (doing things with toys that he had learnt was the routine for example) but am nodding to all the social imagination things.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In DSM V ( the new diagnostic criteria) this aspect is now known as ” Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities” which I think describes the difficulties much better .

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh god yes, the danger! I think people are quite unaware of how an autistic person can be completely independent in their familiar world, within the bounds of their own experience – even to the extent of excelling in a high-powered professional career – and yet how much danger they face in certain new situations without someone “safe” to help them navigate. I shudder to think sometimes of the things I have done and how lucky I was that they turned out OK. Of course you learn every time – but it seems I often have to get something dangerously wrong the first time, because of not having that “social imagination”.

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  7. I met an amazing mother who decided to do something about the fact her son, who has autism, was unable to make friends at school. She collected him from school one Friday evening and started a game on the way home. The game lasted the whole weekend, they shared the creative elements of the story and brought every mealtime and daily routine into the plot. They even camped under the dining table at night, still in role. On the Monday morning, the story ended, and he returned to school. Your post is a brilliant clarification of what has been a highly misinterpreted term!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for writing this. As someone who has never known anyone with autism I always appreciate when people like yourself write posts like this as it is so important to have some kind of understanding (no matter how small) of what other people/children go through. You have explained social imagination so well in this post, I really feel like I have more of an idea of the differences now xx #blogcrush

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Completly agree! A lovely read!
    We have days where Teddie will dance and play with toys but then have a few days where he wouldn’t entertain any of that. We have days where Teddie wants to paint and days when he doesn’t
    Every day is different, but as long as we are all on board to support and help him and he’s happy that is all that matters

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Special Imagination – Health and Educational Tips

  11. I have twin six-year-old girls with autism, and my husband and I are also on the spectrum. I agree completely with your description of social imagination vs. creativity and world-building. I found your blog recently and have been enjoying your clear and relatable posts – stressful summer vacations and food issues are familiar at our house, too. Thank you for writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Agree. However, it can be the case that they do not attempt something as they are unsure of the outcome. My son is like this – everything a danger – the extreme opposite of not realising there could be a danger as you mentioned.

    Danger awareness in autism does not sit in that typical middle ground, but can exist at both extremes. Confusingly for us at times both extremes concurrently.


  13. Good article. As a child I do think I lacked skill in imaginative social play. I think in my case it did apply to stuff like playing with dolls, where I would rather just sit and change the doll’s clothes or set up and take down playsets, but not really do the whole “acting out a scene” with my dolls. I liked to set up my toys or organize them, but didn’t really engage in much actual “play” as it is traditionally considered. I definitely don’t lack imagination entirely, but I may lack certain kinds.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you for such clear information. I am a school music teacher, and this year we are providing music instruction in special education classes. Most of my students are on the autistic spectrum. I just googled this topic and yours is the first result. It should help me plan my lessons more effectively, and I plan to share it with my colleagues. (And the comments, especially by those of you on the spectrum, were helpful as well. Thank you all.)

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks for this post. It helped me better understand this trait in children with autism. I’m a new learner and this article helped me while writing about this concept in a paper.


  16. When my son was diagnosed I read books and articles… everything I could find. Most of them had NOTHING to do with MY child.

    However, I have learned this: ALL children with Autism are different. Sure, there are a few things in common, just like there are basic flavors of ice-cream: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, but on top of those basic flavors, you will have fifteen different odd sprinkles on top that were somehow chosen out at random of THOUSANDS of jars of “quirky” choices.

    All we can do is understand our children are “different” and love them and work hard to help them learn to fit into a world that is going to look at the askance.


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