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.