Imagine that…

One of the first things I was told about identifying autism, was that every autistic child exhibits the “triad of impairment”: Impairments in social interaction, social communication, and imagination. My son ticked every box and then some.

His imaginative play was non-existent. As a three year-old, when his peers were playing with anything and everything – including each other – my son would line up cars, lie down and look at their wheels, and not even make car noises for them. No one was allowed to play with him, or touch his cars. His play was alone, repetitive, and lacked variation or imagination. He was in a world of his own, where little was learnt or changed.

So you’ll know then why the photo below means the world. Tonight, my five year-old autistic son put a toy dog, on a toy bike, and then placed a mixing bowl on its head as a helmet. Then he pretended to have a conversation with the dog. And it gets better, he even drew our attention to what he had done. From a boy who didn’t pretend or imagine or share his world, to a kid who puts a dog on a bike with a bowl for a hat, and tells us about it.

You’ve come a long way kid. I am so proud of you. And might I add, your imagination is so darn cute 🙂

My son's imagination 🙂

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17 Responses to Imagine that…

  1. Sharon says:

    That’s awesome.

  2. Clara says:

    Thats wonderful 😀 *hug*

  3. Melissa says:

    I love it! Especially the helmet!

  4. Bill says:

    I am endowed with Asperger’s.

    I am happy you are happy and proud.

    Your post was a revelation for me. I have seen all of the various autism quotient quizzes and various references to autistic people not having imagination, and apparently never understood what they meant. I considered my imagination to be perfectly fine, thank you; I can imagine anything I want, and in fact my career is based on my ability to think multi-dimensionally, keeping simultaneous track of temperatures and pressures and flows and changes from liquid to vapor and back again in a three dimensional matrix with time as the fourth dimension.

    So what you are telling me, is if I imagine a line of cars parked on a street, that is not actually imagination, but if I imagine something totally irrational, like a stuffed dog being able to ride a toy and be sentient, that is imagination.
    I just double-checked with a dictionary, and it agrees with my concept of imagination as being able to create a mental image of something that may not exist, but what you are telling me is that I need to be able to imagine something which cannot exist in order to meet the psychiatric definition of imagination.

    I was aware neurotypicals take pleasure in watching irrational programs like Seinfeld or The Office, when I cannot take pleasure. It isn’t that I don’t find any of the schtick funny; it’s as soon as they do something which in the real world would get you arrested or fired, my logical mind just kinda hangs up and can’t get past the notion that it isn’t fair or right for them to do such things. (I have seen some situation comedies, as I have politely let others watch what they choose, but I have never in my adult life actually chosen to waste my time watching a situation comedy like Seinfeld or The Simpsons.)

    Within the scope of my skewed imagination, my favorite toys were Erector Sets and Lincoln Logs (notched wooden dowel sets for building “log cabins”) and Tinkertoys, and while initially enamored with lining up toy cars and such, my Aspie sons favored Legos and Construx [no longer made 😦 ] and my sons were really into action figures corresponding to their favorite television cartoon heroes.

    • I don’t think that’s an accurate assessment of what is meant by “imagination” in terms of autistic traits. Autistic children uniformly exhibit an impairment in imaginative play, or “pretend play” if you prefer. The reason for the lack of exhibited pretend play is probably because of the very literal autistic mind – as you say, why imagine the irrational or impossible; to you (and your autistic mind) there is no joy in that. Autistic children differ from their non-autistic peers in this way, and that is the function of the observation – to pick up on autism. (Obviously simply not engaging in pretend play is not enough for a diagnosis, and neither is meeting the triad of impairments, it is – I was told – something that is simply evident in all autistic children, and suggests the existence of autism, not proves it). The difference from a typical type of play of peers (which involves a heck of a lot of make-believe), alerts the parent and professional that something notably different is happening with the child – I don’t think it’s meant to be a critique of the child per se, so much as an evidential observation of autism.

      Either way, my post was just rejoicing in the fact that my son has come so far – from not sharing, not playing with others, and only ever lining up cars, to sharing, interacting, and engaging with a wider variety of objects and toys in a wider variety of play. I do take joy in that – and I’ll tell you what’s even more important – he takes joy in it. He enjoys this sort of play a heck of a lot more than what he was doing a couple of years ago – I have always been able to see his joy (tears vs smiles, laughs vs shaking with anxiety, etc), staring at a wheel without smiling for ages does not compare to happily dancing around his dog on a bike with a helmet creation.

      • Bill says:

        I am still curious about some of the nuances of this. I know that autism spectrum people are slow on the uptake of understanding the people around them have sentience and emotions, that people are not just robots that provide food and restrict behavior. (One of my Aspie brothers told me he never grasped the concept of emotions until he saw a girl teased on the playground, and she burst into tears.) You seem to be telling me that you are looking for signs of the child pretending a toy is sentient, and interacting with it, but that can’t happen if the child still hasn’t grasped the notion of sentience in the people around him. You wouldn’t pretend sentience in a toy if you did not grasp sentience in people. Wouldn’t autism then simply be a deficit in recognizing sentience in his peers (and/or toys), as opposed to a deficit in imagination? Isn’t this a double victory for you- proof of anthropomorphizing a toy and thus assuredly recognizing your humanity?
        (I of course now understand sentience and emotion, but my mind still does not recognize faces well, voices not at all -not even my own children or my wife- and I keep track of the people I work with by where their cubicles are and what tasks they are responsible for.)

      • Bill says:

        Odd coincidence; on my daily Google search of autism news I just ran across this article:
        This PhD asserts Aspies are capable of play and pretend…

      • Hi Bill,

        I still don’t think what you’re describing matches what my son wasn’t able to do, and has since learnt to do, in relevance to the triad of impairments (at least, not as it was described to me all those years ago). My son couldn’t pretend play something that exists in the real world either (such as cars moving, making noises, parking, etc – he really was simply lining them up – there was no evidence that he was imagining they were real cars lined up, just things he put in a line, the same as he’d often collect any other objects all together in one place.) The dog on a toy with a helmet, just happens to be a world away from no make-believe / pretend-play / evidence of imagination, because it is such an extreme example of all three. He still likes to line cars up sometimes, but now he doesn’t have a meltdown if people touch his line up (or even step over his line-up – that would set him off too). More importantly, he now has a wider range of play which has very clearly in turn enhanced his fine and gross motor skills too (plus as I mentioned before, he seems to enjoy his play a lot more now). The new play also means he can play with peers more – not just NT peers, he can join in play with ASD peers at school too in a way he once couldn’t have (not least of all because not everyone – ASDs included – want to just line up cars in their free time). And all of that – independent of the question of what is precisely meant by the triad of impairment – are wonderful things, that flowed from his increasingly imaginative play over the years. (Though he still isn’t as imaginative as his NT peers I should perhaps add.)

        I’ll have a look at your linked story when I get the chance later today, thanks for sharing it.

  5. mamafogafog says:

    How wonderful. I know what it is like to watch non-existent imaginary play develop, it is truly awe-inspiring. Thanks for sharing. Did you show your son the picture?

  6. Rachel says:

    I agree with Bill. I’ve always had quite an imagination, but it didn’t always run in conventional directions, and so I didn’t always share it with others. I had a very vivid and rich interior life as a child, but it seldom extended to imagining things that could never happen; I tended to dream dreams about what I could do and how things could be.

    Plus, the real world has always been a rich and fascinating a place for me. I love the magic of seeing tulips open, listening to bird song, and looking at color and pattern. I’ve always found all kinds of wonder in the things of this world, so perhaps I had less of a need for conventional imaginative play. I do enjoy great works of fiction, and I enjoy making art, so perhaps those are the more conventional areas into which my imagination goes.

    • Hi Rachel. I don’t think it’s about saying “no autistic children have imagination”, it’s about evidence of autism in a young child (as I replied more extensively about to Bill’s comment). In the same way that evidence of lack of empathy in some autistic people is not the same as saying they don’t have empathy. But observations of difference – even if only external ones – help parents and professionals pick up on the potential of autism being present, and that is important.

      I also take huge joy in the real world – I think reality is much more beautiful and fascinating than fiction. I align with that beautiful quote by Douglas Adams: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

  7. Hugs all around! How lovely that in sharing this beautiful family moment you have offered insight on the world of imagination. Who would have thought that your autistic son would reach out to others via his own imagination. Beautiful!

  8. HI

    My name is Lynette Louise (Tsara’s mom). I work Internationally with Autism, raised children out of autism and healed my own sensory peculiarities. I have written a book called MIRACLES ARE MADE:A Real Life Guide To Autism … not that any of that matters just that I wanted you to know who was speak-writing.
    On the subject of imagination and social skills I personally think the DSM IV (and V) should be re-written. In my experience many of autistic children (regardless of location on the spectrum) have a good deal of imagination and social connectedness. In fact some of the children I work with merely play with toys in an imaginary way (for example using stuffed animals as monsters or acting out fairy-tales). However they play the same game over and over for an months or even years. In addition for every child who shuns social contact there is one who over- indulges. These children are socially driven though not socially adept.
    fact seems to be: its a spectrum disorder with many different presentations of itself.
    I think the important thing is to celebrate all forward motion wherever it is found and not worry too much about the exact science of diagnosis. So yes, hurray for the helmet.
    Bill I want to share a thought. No one will ever describe autism in a way that matches you. You will have your own recipe and thus your own take on where the challenges lie. Thank you for sharing.
    It is merely in order to try and find solutions that people feel the need to ‘describe’ the problem. But unfortunately if they describe ASD with all its nuances accurately it will just sound like ‘everybody’ and no funds will be allocated and no one will get help.

    By the way: I always remembered voices while the faces got lost 🙂

    Its a fun world of sensory specialness and strange coping skills we live in.


  9. Aspergirl Maybe says:

    I really appreciate your writing this post and opening up this conversation in the comments as well. I actually have a number of different thoughts swirling around in response to it and think there are actually a number of different topics that have arisen out of the discussion, but I do want to say how glad I am to hear that your son is making progress in this area.

    I sort of think it comes down to the issue of perspective taking, and that what people call imaginative or pretend play is the common way that children show their ability to do this. My son is less able to see things from another perspective than I am, probably because of a combination of the way our neurology differs along with my longer years of experience, but he is far more imaginative by nature than I have ever been.

    With regard to our children, it is impossible to know what skills and abilities are simply delayed and will develop later versus what things will always be different from what is considered typical. That is true for every child, but of course the amount of delay and difference shines the spotlight on kids with autism – good so that we can be aware of the need to instruct and inform them in ways that they can take in, and not so good when it keeps us comparing them to an ideal.

    I am by no means saying that you are doing that – simply that it is a common trap. I think celebrating every step forward is a wonderful and positive thing!

    • Thanks for adding your thoughts Aspergirl Maybe 🙂

      And yes, for me this is primarily a chance to take joy in the expansion of his awareness and abilities and interests, though of course shared in the context of an autistic child overcoming certain challenges. I think sometimes when we as parents take joy in such things, that people with ASD view it as a veiled attack on them or even on our own children – as if they are lesser or less valued for their challenges. It can be upsetting sometimes when a parent says “look what my son can do, how awesome!” to have to then deal with replies along the lines of “stop celebrating it, your celebration offends me”. So often I try to build in caveats to offend unintended offence or clarify what is being celebrated, but I got the impression from some of the replies I got here that I did a poor job of relaying that in the post itself.

      Add to all that the problems with precisely explaining what is meant by the traid of impairments and imaginative / pretend play, and the discussion can get quite messy.

      I do enjoy the chance provided by people’s comments to explore related discussions, not least of all because it provides subjects and discussions for future posts!

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