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.

Why is it always about children?

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March is fast becoming my busiest month. Last year, quite by accident, I found myself making a video to mark autism awareness day on April 2nd. Within 24 hours I had been sent over 150 pictures of children from throughout the UK, mostly by people who I had never met in person, and within a few days I put them together in a video along with some music. It was all new, and hurried and compiled without a great deal of deeper meaning. And in my enthusiasm, innocence and haste I never really gave it too much thought. I was more worried about copyright laws and technical issues of teaching myself how to make a video and upload it to you tube than I was about thinking about any deeper questions. But a year later I look at that video and ask myself one question?

Why is it always about children? See for yourself…

We are approaching autism awareness day once again. And if anything it highlights to me again how much it always seems to be about children. You would think autism was a childhood condition. You would assume that at 16 or 18 autism ceases to affect someone. But that could not be further from the truth. My children (yes they are still very much children and so I am as guilty as the next autism parent of making it about children) will both grow up to be adults with autism. It is a life long condition. There is no cure.

There are reasons why it may seem we hear so much more about children with autism than we do adults. Here are some of my thoughts as to why that is:

1. Children touch the heart-strings more. Charities get more money when children are involved. The innocence and vulnerability of little children seems to open up even the coldest of hearts. So like any condition, if it affects children, everyone is keen to go down that angle. A crying child, a clearly disabled child or an ill child seems to be so powerful. And with autism being a hidden disability it can be so tempting to show children in this light just to bring our cause to the forefront and show that autism can be just as devastating to a family as many other conditions. I have done it myself. And so much publicity about autism does it too. Because it works.

2. The majority of people with autism are diagnosed in childhood. When you first find out your child has any condition your natural instinct is often to find out more and to find others in the same position. And so support groups are born. It is natural to want to promote your cause when it has suddenly became all-consuming to you. Newly diagnosed families often need time to talk, vent and ask questions. Professionals don’t have the time and the after care is seldom there. So when opportunity comes to promote awareness parents of newly diagnosed or young children are often the first to want to be involved. They are desperate for support, inclusion and a sense of being part of something that makes them feel like they are helping their child.

3. Young children are not so aware of what is happening. This is something I am acutely aware of. My son has classic autism with learning difficulties and severe delays. He currently can not speak. His awareness of the world around him is very limited and although that may increase in time he is unlikely to understand difficult concepts like public perception, peer pressure, vulnerability and susceptibility. He may never understand, for example, the implications of having a mother who blogs about it. His twin sister, however, may one day be much more aware. She may have embarrassment, anxiety or upset at the thought of her image being used to promote autism awareness at some point. And I would be wrong to ignore her feelings on the matter. So parents of older children and adults are faced with the issues of protection and permission that parents of small children are not.

4. The more children grow up in a society of inclusion the more they do not wish to be seen as different. As more and more children and young people with autism attend mainstream schools and colleges the more pressure there is on them to not stick out. For many older children and adults autism awareness brings with it the reality that they have not actually been able to overcome their difficulties and somehow their disability is still visible. For a few this will bring major anxiety. For some adults this would involve admitting to work colleagues, neighbours and friends that they have a condition they have yet to discuss. So they would much prefer anonymity. That has to be respected.

5. After years in the system weariness can set in. Can you imagine 20 plus years of lack of sleep? Can you imagine having to fight every day of your child’s life for twenty plus years just to get basic support? Some of these families have been through so many campaigns, so many fundraisers, so many promotions, that they can almost feel it has seemed pointless. They hear stories of families with younger children still fighting for things they fought for many years before and it can become so disheartening so they disengage. But we still need to be aware of them. And we still need to support them.

6. Not all awareness is positive. Parents of older children and adults have come to realise this more and be using wisdom more in how to make people more knowledgable of autism. There is something to be said for this maturity.

As we approach autism awareness day remember, like everything else, we all deal with autism differently. We are all on a journey and sometimes it can appear to just be about children. When you next see an image like this bear in mind that there is a reason why you are seeing a child. But this girl will still have autism when the toy rainbow has long been forgotten. And she will still have autism when awareness day has passed by too.IMG_2182