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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Still a child

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Dedicated to the wonderful children who are too often defined by diagnosis, difficulties and impairments.

He sits in a wheelchair with a bib around his neck. People talk about him like he isn’t really there. They feed him something without thinking wether he likes it or not. He has no say where they take him or how he is dressed. But just because he can not speak do not assume he can not understand. Give him a chance. Would you treat any other six year old like that? Treat him with respect and love. Let him try. Let him be included. He may be disabled, but he is still a child.

He screams in your face when you touched him. He bit himself when you closed the door. He is flapping his hands at the rain falling at the window and isn’t interested when you say his name. You don’t need to shout louder because he isn’t deaf. As frustrating as it is to watch, losing your temper at him won’t help. People talk about him like he is unaware. They had information about him but never took the time to read it or do anything about it. It was filed away and forgotten. People try and engage on their terms taking no account of his interests or sensory issues. Some even physically remove him or close the blinds.window Where is the respect? Where is the love? He may be disabled but he is still a child.

She lies on the floor trying to roll. People are pushing and pulling her this way and that. Talking over her noises and ignoring her pain. They think they are helping. They talk to each other without looking at her face, her eyes and listening to her cries. They have their agenda, exercises to increase her movement that no-one has involved her in. Their intentions are good. But have they motivated her and relaxed her? Would you expect any other five year old to exercise without motivation or encouragement? She may be disabled but she is still a child.

She stands at the side of the playground watching all the others play. The adults find this concerning so they devise strategies to include her and teach the children to not allow her to be on her own. She is badgered by voices shouting her name and pulling her hands. She is forced to join in, forced to interact when she didn’t want to. Why did no-one ask her what she wanted? Did she lose the right of choice and privacy when they diagnosed her with autism? They think they are helping but no-one thought to find out if she was happier watching and joining in if and when she wanted to. While other children can watch it seems she isn’t allowed. She may struggle socially but she is still a child.

He can’t speak so they buy him toys that they think he should like. No-one thinks to watch him and see what his interests are. He wants to look at a flyer from a frozen food shop but adults deem that wrong and would rather it was a book. When he licks the toys they take them out his mouth and take them away. They set up fancy sets with tiny cars and bricks that he can not hold and expect him to play like any other child. They get upset and annoyed when he brakes them and screams. They put dvd’s on he has no interest in because it is deemed more age appropriate. They think he can not speak so he can not communicate. But he can. He would rather the baby toys still but they are too embarrassed to buy them for a six year old. He may be developmentally delayed, but he is still a child.

He swears at your face when you say hello. He came out of school kicking and screaming and threatening to kill his teacher and classmates. The other children are scared of hi20140225-210850.jpgm and the school threatens the parents with the police. They label him as disobedient, a bully, having challenging behaviour. They yell at him more than they talk to him. He is retrained far more than he is ever hugged. He is isolated from his peers and banned from after school clubs. They try to fix complex problems with behaviour star charts and bribery. He may have difficulties, but he is still a child.

Despite physical, mental and and social difficulties these are all children. Children who deserve time, patience, understanding and love. They have a right to choose, to be educated and respected, to be listened to and included. They deserve to explore the world around them, learn in their own way and play with toys they enjoy. They deserve hugs and tickles and kisses.

Difficulties and diagnosis should never define anyone. Even if they can not feed them self, dress them self, attend to their own needs, speak or struggle with social interaction or behaviour they are still worthy of respect.

Because most of all, they are still a child.

Just imagine if that child was yours.