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The Link Between Autism And Imagination 

January 3, 2024

Imagination is important to human development and helps individuals interact with their environment. There is an interesting relationship between autism and imagination that should not be overlooked.

For parents and caregivers, understanding autistic imagination and how it may differ from their own can be beneficial. Also, understanding what imagination is and where it stems in the brain and human development may help teachers and parents increase imaginative and pretend play for autistic children.

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What is imagination?

According to the Oxford Language Dictionary, imagination is “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, images, or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” Imagination is the basis for pretend play, which can be a way for children to develop different skills to interact with the world around them.

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” 

As more is learned about imagination and its connection to creative thinking, problem-solving, imaginative play, and social interaction, some ideas can help develop and strengthen these skills.

An Albert Einstein quote about imagination
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Do autistic children lack imagination?

It would be unfair to generalize and say that all children with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time with imaginative play. To state that there could be an autistic child who has difficulty with imaginative skills could help open the door for that child to receive support to develop those skills.

As a parent, when I think about imagination and imaginative play, I think about imaginary friends. Pretend play is such an essential aspect of development. It provides the time and space children need to test out different roles and social interactions and develop and understand how social roles work.

In children with autism who have difficulty with pretend play, the opportunity to interact and learn these different roles and how they work in society can be limited. This could, in turn, affect their social imagination and development because of fewer opportunities.

What parents and caregivers can do

As with anything, the best action is to do something. Start with just one small change that the child may enjoy.

Knowing and utilizing a child’s special interest can be all the inspiration they need. It can also help to have a plan with goals to focus on to build different skills and provide those opportunities to the child.

There could even be a particular ASD group specializing in imaginary or symbolic play, expanding creative thinking, or many other areas.

I have experienced social groups for autistic children that have different goals, like increasing interactions with others, learning how to start and maintain a conversation, and having fun while doing so. 

One group had created a skit from an ice cream/candy shop, so when it was time for the audience to participate, some challenges took creative thinking and problem-solving.

Those components together made it much more fun for the audience to participate and learn. Adding creativity to projects and therapies can do many great things for the child, including helping them find their own creative way of doing things.


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Sensory and imaginative play

So many different things can be a distraction on any given day for anyone. These minor annoyances can become a big deal for someone with sensory sensitivities.

When an environment is set up with potential sensory issues acknowledged, it can mean a lot to the sensory-sensitive individual, especially if learning and developing skills are expected to happen.

Considering what the child does or does not like can help develop sensory play alongside imaginative play. This might include outfits with various textures for the children to dress up in, slime for Storytime, or making a recipe from a book the child was looking at. There are so many different things that can be done.

Why is this important?

When it comes to children who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, imagination and pretend play can be a challenge for some. Parents or caregivers should have a plan that helps to create an environment where the child is comfortable.

Knowing what the child needs to develop socially and developmentally can be a great start. Other practitioners can also help in providing what the child needs to grow.

It all starts with doing something. That something could be as simple as adding sensory play during Storytime, providing pretend play items with different textures and weights, etc.

Parents know their children best and are more likely to understand their needs and seek support when necessary. Having the ability to nurture and empower the child’s growing imagination can be something that parents and caregivers can do.

FAQs

Q: Is lack of imagination a symptom of autism?

A: People with autism may show differences in imaginative play and creativity, but it’s important to note that a lack of imagination is not a common symptom of autism. While their expression of imagination might be unique, many individuals with autism have creative ways of thinking.

Q: How does autism impact imaginative play in children?

A: Autism can affect imaginative play in children by influencing their ability to engage in pretend scenarios, often resulting in more repetitive or literal play patterns. Challenges in social communication and a preference for routine may contribute to difficulties in spontaneously creating and participating in imaginative play.

Q: Are there specific strengths or challenges in imagination associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

A: People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be really good at certain imaginative things, like having intense interests. However, they might find it hard to think flexibly or understand abstract ideas, showing that imaginative abilities can vary a lot in individuals with ASD.

Q: How can parents and educators support the development of imagination in children with autism?

A: Parents and educators can help children with autism develop their imagination by creating regular and organized imaginative activities based on the child’s interests. Providing a supportive and non-judgmental environment that encourages creativity, along with using visual aids and sensory elements, can enhance engagement and communication for these children.

References

Davis, P., Meins, E., Robins, D., & Simon, H. (2018). Imaginary Companions in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6061017/

TedX Mile High. (2019). What is Imagination? Three Perspectives. https://www.tedxmilehigh.com/what-imagination/

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