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.

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A Different Life

Sometimes life can carry on, every day pretty much the same routine with the same people around and the same places to go to. And then other times something major changes and your life can seem out of control, up in the air, just so unrecognisable from before. Events such as a baby being born, getting married, starting a new job, moving to a new country, or a relationship ending, death in the family or sudden change in career. How we all cope with these changes defines who we are and makes us stronger. We need to adapt to a different life, a different way of doing things. And that all takes time, patience and support.

We had one of those changes last week when one of the children starting full time education for the first time. My twins became seperated for the longest they have ever been and everything changed. And it feels like a different life.

For young Isaac it really is a different life. From the moment he was born he has always had mum, dad, and twin sister around. We have been his stability, his strength, his unmoving support when any change happened around him or anything occurred he wasn’t sure of. Like so many children his age he is incredible close to his sibling and parents and reliant on them for so much. But unlike other children his age, he is far more dependant, far more needy and much less independant. So to suddenly send him in a taxi to school without that life line of support and communication for six hours, 5 days a week is major. Such a different life for him. And such a different life for the rest of us too. He needs time, patience and support to help him adapt to that different life. We all do.

But he is coping remarkable well considering his life has changed so much. His diary on his first day at school read: ‘Isaac had a great first day at school. Very happy and laughing a lot of the day.’ He can’t tell us about his time away so that diary is a life line. We can only go by his behaviour, his body langauage and his reaction to things at home to judge how things are going in that different place where life is so so different and strange for him. At home he is exhausted, clingy and needy. And after just three days at school he has already caught an upper respiratory infection. Different life equals different germs.

But he loves his school jumper! In fact he loves those jumpers so much we had to hide them at the weekend. But he searched his wardrobe and pulled out every item until he found a red jumper! He doesn’t recognise the school logo so this was an old jumper from a previous nursery but it was red! And it was the only thing he was willing to wear on saturday.

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If this helps him cope and adapt to his different life then so be it. Good job he quite suits red.

Naomi now has a different life too. She has to travel to nursery without her brother sitting beside her. She has a new key worker at nursery and new children in her group. And now when she come home from nursery she has almost 4 hours on her own with mum and dad. And no longer any afternoon naps after nursery too. For the first day she got so upset when we didn’t make any lunch for Isaac. It was so hard for her to learn she could set up her train set and her brother would not come and take it apart and chew the track. She was so clingy and tearful. And asked after Isaac all the time. So emotionally exhausting for her to be apart from him for so long. She only agreed to watch her favourite dvd on agreement that we would put Peppa Pig on for her brother as soon as he came home. Sweet, but also very revealing.

This girl has had to live a very different life to other 4 year olds. She has had to learn to put her brothers needs before her own all too often. She has trained herself to cope with her games being broken and pulled apart and chewed by her twin brother and not get upset. She has leant how to go to sleep when he is still making so much noise in the room next door. She has adapted to his ways, grown to understand his attemps at communication and knows just when it is best to keep out of his way. But now she has a different life. Now she can really be a four year old girl for the first time. Now her needs can come first for once.

So for the first time ever she got to visit a museum this week. She wasn’t sure what to make of the statue:

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or of mum popping out of a makeshift cave:

Imagebut she loved writing on the blackboard:

Imagebuilding a 3D palace:

Imagebut most of all doing a magnetic jigsaw:

Imageshe still asked about her brother lots. And when we got in the car to come home she did tell us that it would not be a nice place for Isaac because there wasn’t enought straight lines!

The first thing she wants to know when Isaac gets home is what he has been doing in school. On Friday he spent some time in the schools multi-sensory room and in thier soft play room. This is what she thinks school will be like. Oh boy, she is in for such a different life this time next year when she starts the local mainstream school! Isaac will be going horse riding and swimming with his school too. So we will be doing fun things with Naomi at home.

We popped to the local shops with just Naomi one afternoon. It felt so strange just walking in without having a trolley with her brother in. It felt even stranger getting to walk around the ailes without hearing screams and cries and to walk out of those beloved automatic doors that I have spent so much time watching my boy flap and woop in amazement at for the last few years.

A very different life for mum and dad too. Why, we have even managed to enrol ourselves on courses with the national autistic society this week and enjoy a breakfast date together.

Soon this will become everyday life for us. Every day pretty much the same routine, with the same people around and the same places to go to. Until the next change happens and we start a different life again.

Change is hard for everyone. But with time, patience and support we can all adapt to a different life, wether that is without a loved one, a partner you once had, or adapting to a new baby, a new country or starting school.

A different life. But a good life. Because different might have it’s challenges but it also has it’s rewards. I am going to miss our old life. But I am determined to embrace this new, diffferent life too.