Not long before my son turned six years old, he created his first imaginary friend. The friend’s name is “Whanau,” which happens to be the Maori word for extended family. I can imagine all sorts of motivators for that choice of name, foremost in my mind is his school teachers asking if he played with “whanau” at home (and similar phrases and questions). It’s not a word we use at home ourselves, and even if we had used it now and then, his pronunciation of the word is much better than mine!
The first time I met Whanau, my son was playing with him on the couch at home. My son told me that Whanau was his “pretend friend.” Over that first day and the weeks since then, I have found out a lot about Whanau, including his age, his family, and what he does with his days. My son treats Whanau like a younger friend or sibling; someone he can teach, boss around, and care for.
At first I was overjoyed, I took the invention of an imaginary friend as a positive development; a sign of my son’s growing creativity and imagination. Indeed I thought that it would be rare for an autistic child to have an imaginary friend since they required skills that autism classically affects (social skills, communication, and of course, imagination). It didn’t take much research online though, to change my expectations about autism and imaginary friends, and I quickly encountered various outrageous and ridiculous theories.
One mother had created an elaborately expressed theory based on the original mistake – when autism was first identified – of thinking autism was a type of schizophrenia. She decided that any sign of imagination – most especially the existence of imaginary friends – was an early warning of delusions and a separation from reality. So she strongly advised other parents to do as she had done; thoroughly quash any signs of imagination in their autistic children to prevent it becoming full-blown schizophrenia.
Other theories held to the view that imaginary friends are always a sign of dysfunction in an autistic individual; always existing well past their ideal life-time (the kindergarten years) and providing a way for autistic teenagers and adults to avoid real social interaction. More general notions about imaginary friends (independent of the question of autism) suggested imaginary friends are always inappropriate; that it is only in growing social situations (such as starting kindergarten) that children realise and learn that it is wrong and different to have imaginary friends and thereafter replace them with real friends. So that the continued existence of imaginary friends – even in the preschool years – was a sign of something being wrong.
Thankfully I did encounter the saner calmer views; that imaginary friends are a quite normal and common stage of development. Although it does appear that imaginary friends (much to my surprise when I read this a few times) are actually more common in autistic children than neurotypical children; some even saying that the existence of an imaginary friend at all may be treated as a sign of autism (!). Since autistic children are developmentally delayed, their imaginary friends may appear later and last longer.
There is nothing inherent in the existence of an imaginary friend that indicates deep-rooted social or life problems that require resolution. Indeed, my son’s imaginary friend appeared at one of the happiest and most social times of his life; he has a best friend at school, his anxieties have been broadly decreasing, and his relationship with his younger brother is better than you’d even hope for with typical sibling interactions. He is doing great lately. He appears to use this imaginary friend not to escape or replace reality; rather to practice communication and reverse roles with other people in his life (especially parent and teacher roles, so he can parent and teach Whanau). My son has no issues understanding that Whanau is imaginary rather than a full-blown delusion; indeed it was he who announced to me that Whanau was his pretend friend: He knows he’s not real. Neither does he spend a lot of time with Whanau, he just appears now and then briefly, often during play time at home.
Yes it is conceivable that an imaginary friend could be a sign of a problem. A very withdrawn child might use this friend to express frustration, aggression, etc. They might use an imaginary friend as a confidant in an unlistening, judgmental world. But that is not my son’s world. Indeed when I asked his head teacher for her views about Whanau, she said she thinks it’s harmless particularly because my son is such a happy and social child (his head teacher is specially trained in educating autistic children; on a side note let me just say she is a brilliant woman who we are very lucky to have in his life).
We treat Whanau as we would an imaginary friend of any other child (and the following advice sits well from my research): We don’t actively encourage Whanau’s existence but we don’t try to kill him off either. We play along on the rare occasions my son invites us to interact with Whanau, and we do not try to over-take or direct the existence and activities of Whanau: He belongs to my son. Mostly I get to listen to amusing conversations and information that my son passes on to Whanau; his six year-old words of wisdom and insights.
So I’m happy for Whanau to exist. I see him as evidence of my son’s growing and developing imagination. Whanau provides just one more way in which my son can practice communication, and take on other roles in life. This imaginary friend has appeared at a happy and settled time in my son’s life, and indeed in our family’s life. I see no evidence of strife preceding the creation of Whanau, nor feeding the existence of Whanau. I’ll watch with interest over the coming months; to see whether Whanau appears more or less, how his relationship with my son changes, etc.
If his imaginary friend is anything like the ones I remember having when I was around his age, then they will be a source of fun for him. I remember my imaginary friends fondly. I don’t remember anyone trying to kill them off, and I would have been upset and confused if anyone had tried to. It’s all too easy to pathologize everything when it comes to autistic children. It’s important to take that step back and remember that childhood – autistic or otherwise – is filled with a range of fascinating and perfectly innocent experiences. Best I can see, Whanau is one of those fascinating and perfectly innocent things, and he’s welcome to stay a while. Whanau is welcome in our whare.