Do People with Autism Have Imaginations?

Susan Boyle
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Do people with autism have imaginations?  The short answer to that question is... "yes!"

Like everyone else, people with autism can imagine things that don't exist, might exist, or could exist.  They can read and enjoy stories, watch and engage with movies and TV shows, or conceive of and produce a drawing or sculpture.  Many people with autism are artists, actors, musicians, and writers.  Quite a few have extraordinary talent.

  A small number are renowned either regionally or internationally.

Oddly, however, many people believe that autism and imagination are incompatible. 

Where does the "no imagination" myth come from? 

Chances are, it is based on the reality that young children with autism lack something called "social imagination" -- the "let's pretend" type of play that is so common among typically developing children. Autistic youngsters are more likely to do their own thing in their own way than to play make believe games like "house" or "school" that require social interaction, verbal skills, and the ability to imitate the actions and reactions of others.  They are even more likely than typical children to enjoy repeating the same activities over and over again, watch the same television shows, and line or stack objects with no particular aim in mind.

Few children with autism draw adults into their games, or announce their intentions.

Unlike typical children, they won't say "Daddy, you be the lion and roar," nor will they announce "I'm building a space ship!"  It may be up to Mom and Dad to figure out how to engage in the autistic child's world, or draw meaning from their actions.

Why is social imagination rare among autistic children?

  Is it because children with autism are unable to imagine?  Actually, that is rarely the case.  But social imagination specifically requires precisely the skills that are most likely to be compromised in autistic children: speech, social communication, the ability to "read" body language, the ability to imitate others' behaviors, the ability to cope with loud noise or large groups.  It may also require significant executive functioning and motor planning -- that is, the ability to plan several steps ahead, and manipulate the physical environment.

So social imagination is tough for autistic kids.  But of course, social imagination is by no means the only form of human imagination.  "The arts," which are usually thought of as the realm of the imagination, include few activities that could be described as similar to children's social imagination.  Invention, considered by many to be the epitome of human creativity, is absolutely unrelated to the ability to pretend to be someone (or something) else.

  Even storytelling, filmmaking, photography, and related arts, while they do require the ability to imagine, don't necessarily require the ability to share the creative process as a social activity.

Drawing, painting, writing, playing an instrument, singing, dancing, and acting are creative -- often very creative -- but they are just as often solitary as collaborative.  They are just as often imitative or reiterative as they are original (think about Wagnerian opera or drawing a still life).

Invention is often a highly technical and iterative process that requires out-of-the-box thinking, patience, and skill - but little in the way of social imagination.  Nicola Tesla, one of America's greatest inventors, had very few social skills (and thus lost his opportunity to make a fortune to the more socially ept Thomas Edison).

Some of the more renowned autistic artists and creators include actors (Darryl Hannah, Dan Ackroyd), realistic painters and pencil artists (Stephen Wiltshire), musicians and singers (Matt Savage, Courtney Love, Susan Boyle). Do these folks have imaginations?  Of course they do.  Did they play "make believe" as little ones?  Chances are the answer is "no."

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