The Secret World of Imagination Hidden in Autism
Despite popular belief, many people with autism have prolific imaginations.
Posted March 21, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- One of the diagnostic criteria that providers evaluate heavily when assessing children with autism is an inability to engage in pretend play.
- While many believe people with autism lack imagination, case studies show they have rich inner worlds of creativity.
- It takes time and energy for people with autism to find a template to communicate their inner experiences to others.
I do a significant amount of autism testing. I also treat many adults with autism using neuroaffirmative approaches to autism treatment. In my practice, I have noted that one of the diagnostic criteria that other providers evaluate heavily when assessing children with autism (ASD) is an inability to engage in pretend play. According to Rudy (2022), children with autism are less likely to engage in games that require “make-believe." One of the critical subgroups of questions on the Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI-R) revolves around assessing whether the child being assessed engages in imaginative play.
According to Healis Autism Center (2021), “Pretend play is often delayed in children with autism where they tend to engage in fewer actions of pretend play spontaneously.” I have had many clients come to me with test results from other providers that rule out autism because they engaged in imaginative play as a child and can make eye contact. Children with autism are stereotypically thought to prefer sorting objects, playing with objects and toys in a repetitive fashion, and engaging in repetitive behaviors instead of playing.
Many people with autism have rich imaginations
In my experience, the fundamental problem in assessing imagination in children with autism is that researchers and clinicians assume there is only one way to have an imagination or engage in imaginative play. Neurotypical children often engage in imaginary play by projecting their imagination onto toys and objects and interacting with other children. If children lack these types of play, observers assume that they lack imagination.
Yet, in my experience, people with autism sometimes have much richer and deeper imaginations than neurotypicals and often retreat into dissociative worlds of imagination when they are stressed. The problem is that they can’t properly verbalize what these worlds are in a way neurotypicals can easily understand and the way they engage in imaginative play is different from what neurotypicals expect.
For example, one autistic boy I worked with engaged in a repetitive form of play where he ran back and forth spinning an object in his hand. To the neurotypical observer, this would be the typical nonverbal autistic play that lacks an imaginative component, yet when I talked to him after he became more verbal as an adult, he described his inner world as being filled with ongoing stories and narratives which he enacted in his head by running back and forth.
Another young man I worked with liked to sort blocks. As he did this, he created amazingly detailed storylines in his head that were connected to an online game he played. The stories were so detailed that he could have written novels about them.
Another client I had would sit quietly staring into space for hours as a child, yet as she aged, she began writing lengthy graphic novels about the elaborate and amazingly intricate stories she played out in her head during these periods of apparent “blanking out."
My examples could go on forever. I work with adults with autism who are more adept at communication and most of them describe inner worlds of amazingly rich imaginations going back to early childhood. Yet, lack of imagination is often considered one of the notable traits of autism. Tim Burton, Dan Aykroyd, Sara Gibbs, and Dan Harmon are just a few famous creatives and writers who have been diagnosed with autism who show that imagination blossoms in the soil that is often perceived to lack creativity and imagination.
Misunderstanding from neurotypicals
According to the imagination deficit hypothesis (Craig et. Al, 1999), “imaginative creativity is more difficult than reality-based creativity” for people with autism. However, I think the truth isn’t that we lack imagination. It is that we relate to our imaginations differently than most neurotypicals.
When I was a girl, I used Scotch tape to hang all of my stuffed animals on my bedroom wall. This caused my mother unending anxiety as it destroyed the paint, and to the casual observer, this may have been exemplary of a lack of imaginative play. Yet in my mind, I was sorting each animal according to its role in an imaginary world I had built in my head. The unicorn came first because it was the ruler of the group of misfits that had fled the land of normal creatures due to the fact that they felt lost amongst the normal. In my mind, this story was detailed. I spent hours in the woods talking to myself while sorting rocks and sticks and imagining how the story would play out. None of this play would have appeared imaginative. My father frequently told me I just seemed crazy sorting things while mumbling to myself, but all of this was connected to a deep imaginative play.
I have written 10 novels. I have spent much of my life trapped in lands of imagination that rivaled my reality. Many of my clients are the same. They write books, play dungeons and dragons, play games that require immense storytelling and imagination, paint, draw, read, and live in worlds of imagination so deep and so beautiful few neurotypicals fully understand where our imaginations come from. According to Samantha Craft’s Unofficial Checklist for Women with autism online, women with autism in particular “escape routinely through imagination, fantasy, and daydreaming.” We live through our imaginations.
It is my hypothesis that the inability of many neurotypical researchers, clinicians, and caregivers to fully perceive the imaginative strengths of people with ASD comes from our difficulty with communication. We consistently score lower on all measures of creativity and imagination on neurotypical-designed tests and behavioral observations, but I believe that is largely due to our inability to communicate verbally or on traditional written tests what we experience as our inner worlds. If you had asked me as a girl why I was sorting my animals, I would have gotten angry or gone mute. It takes time and energy to find a template for us to communicate our inner experiences in a way others can understand, but that doesn’t mean our inner experiences aren’t as rich, if not richer, in imagination and creativity than any neurotypical’s.
Craig, J., & Baron-Cohen, S (1999). Creativity and imagination in autism and Asperger syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 29(4), 319-326.
Craft, Samantha (2019). Females and Autism/ Aspergers: A Checklist. The Art of Autism. www.the-art-of-autism.com
Healis Autism Centre (2021) Can Children with Autism Pretend Play? Healis Autism Center. www.healisautism.com
Rudy, Lisa Jow (2022). The Reasons Autsitic Children Play Differently. Very Well Health. www.verywellhealth.com