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All images and posts written by and copyright to Amanda Clements (nee Gray) 2009-2012 unless otherwise indicated.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Autism and Imagination

Imagination is an important part of life. When reading about Autism Spectrum Disorders you might read about it as "cognitive flexibility" (ASPECT, 2002)

It is an important part of playing, learning and interacting with others. Imagination helps us understand abstract concepts, problem-solve and empathise with others.

Autism and Imagination

The National Autistic Society state:

"Social imagination allows us to understand and predict other people's behaviour, make sense of abstract ideas, and to imagine situations outside our immediate daily routine."
It is this form of imagination that children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) find most difficult. The following are some of the key skills associated with social imagination.

Theory of mind

The technical definition of theory of mind goes something like this:

“Theory-of-Mind (ToM) is the social cognitive ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to use these attributions in understanding, predicting and explaining behavior of others and oneself.” (Blijd-Hoogewys, Geert, Serra & Minderaa, 2008)

In simple language, it is about the ability to empathise and evaluate how our behaviour is effecting others. As Blijd-Hoogewys et al suggest, it is a core skill in being able to interact in a socially acceptable way. Without it, children mostly act egocentrically. This means that they interact with others according to their needs and wants without identifying how their actions may effect others.

For children who are "neurotypical" (ie. don't have an ASD), the ability to empathise and evaluate how their behaviour will effect others starts to be evident in their interactions around the age of four. This is also the time when they start to develop friendship groups.

A child with ASD will be able to learn this skill, but will it not develop at the same rate or in the same way (Blijd-Hoogewys et al., 2008; Gartrell & Gartrell, 2008; Miller, 2006). This means that while they want friends, their difficulty in imagining how others are feeling, or imagining how their behaviour might effect others, means that they often do not develop friendships in the same way. Instead, they may become a little isolated as they struggle to behave in ways that are considered appropriate.


Because of their difficulty with social imagination, children with ASDs often have a narrow set of interests (ASPECT, 2010). They may find it difficult to communicate or learn about things outside this interest. They may also struggle to play games that don't fit with their interests.

Imaginative play

Many social skills are learnt through participation in imaginative play. For example, whilst playing "mummies and daddies" children are learning to communicate effectively, share and practice the different roles and activities relevant to everyday life. Children with ASDs may struggle with unstructured imaginative play because there are no set, repetitive rules for that type of play (The National Autisitic Society, 2010). It requires a lot of social imagination.

So the one type of play that could help children learn social imagination skills is often the type of play that children with ASD don't voluntarily get involved with.

Change and new experiences

Imagine this:
You have just woken up. You look around an there is nothing familiar in your environment. You aren't at home. You don't know the people you see. They are speaking a language you don't understand. They are acting in ways that don't fit with what you have come to expect from people. The weather is different to anything you have experienced before. There are noises you don't recognise. You don't know where you are.
How would you feel? Disoriented? Home-sick? Teary? Scared? Frustrated? Angry?

You feel these things because you can't predict what might happen next. You can't use any of the information you have gathered from your other life experiences to help you because everything is so foreign. You feel like things are spinning out of control. You end up with what we might call "culture shock", or an emotional and sensory overload - which can lead to anything from depression to significant anxiety.

And this is what it must be like for a child with Autism.

If you struggle to "imagine" and relate past experiences to new ones whenever a routine changes, or you go to a new place, you could experience a meltdown. Not because you are "being naughty," but because you are overwhelmed.


As the National Autistic Society (2010) mention, another skill that social imagination gives us is the ability to recognise the possible consequences for our actions. Not only in the context of how our behaviour effects others, but also how it might effect ourselves.

In short, we need social imagination in order to identify and manage risk.

As you will read in some of the parent stories that I will be sharing with you this month, one of the things that families often struggle with is getting their child with Autism to stay close. If a child does not realise that running away means getting lost, maybe getting hurt on a busy road or maybe being hurt by strangers - then they are less likely to stay close to mum or dad.

The child is not necessarily running away from mum. More likely they want something (like that favourite toy in the shop window), want to avoid something (like too much noise) or be struggling to wait while their parents get their jobs done.

This doesn't mean these skills can't be learnt

As a mummy blogger noted in her post about 10 common autism myths, just because a child has difficulty with a skill doesn't mean they can't learn it. It just takes more work. It is important that we focus on children's strengths and build on this.

Repetition and modelling

To help children with ASD get involved in imaginative play, we could use structure and repetition. For example, we can model a sequence of steps for the child to imitate to participate in pretend play. Like pretending to cook, or put a doll to bed, or drive a pretend car and so on.

Social stories

To help children predict what might happen as a consequence of certain behaviours, social stories can be used. I have discussed these in a previous post.

Just remember:
Don't judge, support and love
Use their skills and learn they will!


Aspect (2002). Thinking and Learning in Autism.

Aspect (2010). What is Autism?

Blijd-Hoogewys, E.M.A, Geert, van AEPLC, Serra, M., Minderaa, Æ R. B. (2008). Measuring Theory of Mind in Children: Psychometric Properties of the ToM Storybooks. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 38, p1907–1930

Gartrell, D., and Gartrell, J.J. (2008). Guidance Matters: Understand Bullying. Young Children, 63(3), p54-57.

Miller, C.A. (2006). Developmental Relationships Between Language and Theory of Mind. American Journal of Speech – Language Pathology, 15(2), p142.

The National Autistic Society. (2010). Autism: What is it?


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