An Imaginary Whanau

imaginary friend

Image by PaMeLa JaCKSoN via Flickr

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.

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9 Responses to An Imaginary Whanau

  1. Kristina H says:

    Whanau sounds cool! There are always the nay sayers around but if Whanau is making your boy happy then long may he last!

  2. usethebrainsgodgiveyou says:

    >>>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.<<<


  3. Jim W. says:

    My NT kiddo had imaginary sisters, Sara, and Flower, and an imaginary rainbow-colored dog, Heinrich. There were no alarm bells. I don’t know why it would set them to ringing if my autistic kiddo had them.

  4. Erytheia Red says:

    I love love love that Whanau “belongs to your son,” as you say, and that your parenting style allows and encourages him to dictate all aspects of Whanau’s existence. Your observations of Whanau and your son are FASCINATING and so detailed. I think all children need to have things that are theirs, that they maintain control over, have a sense of independence with–special needs/autistic spectrum children perhaps even moreso. I grew up in a Montessori style household with many stations in the house being at my level and under my total control to do art, cooking, and other activities. Imaginary friends are a natural outlet for outwardly modelling what is often expected to be internalized social behavior for one, and just so much fun to have for another.

    I have several special needs diagnoses. I adored telling stories with my imaginary friends (I had a whole streetful, since our street had few kids on it) and no one shut me down about it when I was growing up. I don’t know how I would have reacted, but I think it would have been dramatic and I think I would have stridently protested at first or shut down and become very secretive about them. It definitely would have broken my trust in my parents. My real-life best friend and I “shared” imaginary friends, because we liked the names so much and it became part of storytelling play in our backyards. The only thing they didn’t share were physical characteristics, but we just accepted and agreed on this dichotomy with unflinching child’s logic that if you make it up it can exist and be so. It was a creative outlet for me, something I could use to act out dreams and stories, and the many ideas my imagination came up with. It was pure pleasure and empowerment for my creative voice and never felt overtly connected to anything to do with any of my special needs diagnoses and I eventually outgrew my need to tell stories about them, by the time I was 9 or so. Though I still remember them fondly. If anything having the present and parental encouragement (much on the same level as yours) in having such imaginary friends encouraged me to do real-life things such as drama, dance, and creative writing throughout the rest of my life.

    Tying to cull out behaviors to prevent a child from developing “worse” mental illnesses that are actually linked through science for many years to brain chemistry and not to a parent’s rearing practices is disturbing and backwards to me. I understand that parents want what’s best for children, and for them to develop to the best of their abilities whatever they may be, but the heavier, “older” mental illnesses are no more bad as the darker days of dealing with autism. They’re not worse, not better, just different, and then, not by much. The thing that is tough to deal with is the behavior, and this is ALWAYS tough, even if your child starts out life as just carrying the autistic spectrum diagnosis. Imaginary friends aren’t a behavior, they are a developmental process that happens in children who are autistic and special needs AND children who aren’t (which you already said, but I was particularly struck by the theories that they were linked to being a symptom of autism as being something I consider patently false). There isn’t anything a parent can do to keep their child from developing schizophrenia. It’s no one’s fault that a child has these brain imbalances or that they are predisposed through the findings of this that or the next study. It seems all that sort of information is unnecessarily hard on parents who are trying and is not particularly helpful for dealing with the set of behavioral challenges a parent is presented with daily that vary so widely.

    Many people carry multiple diagnoses, and they get by in life, grow up, go to college, obtain jobs, gain financial and social independence. SOME of these people had imaginary friends, but they were OK. Even if they developed schizophrenia or some other disease. They still make it into life, launched out of the nest. Children go through regression and progression, autistic/special needs children do it more dramatically, making strange leaps at strange times both backwards and forwards, like they have one foot in the door and the other way behind them. It’s not easy, but they can do it.

    You are a great parent. You are looking for answers and trying your best (even when you think you can’t possibly be trying your best because life gets in disarray). I love that you do such wonderful parallel play on this level with your son–it is good for all children but I have read in a copy of Dr. Stanley Greenspan’s book on children with special needs and found with my oldest nephew who has autism, that it is especially good for children with autism and special needs, and their development. I am posting all this because I want to encourage and support you, and back up your instincts and because your feelings resonated with mine on the defense of having imaginary friends.

    I would argue that even for a very withdrawn child, an imaginary friend might be a wonderful communication device when used as you describe your interactions with your child and his imaginary friend. I believe your interaction can work with any level of withdrawn behavior, if presented with something as clear as an imaginary friend. Imaginary friends might help keep the focus off of the child, keep the child and their behaviors and expressed emotions/thoughts in an external spotlight, and onto something outside them, a thing which they control and can be part of. I feel imaginary friends serve for us grown ups who constantly fall into the pattern of marching the kids through the gritty day to day functioning as a way to positively encourage social connection and positively encourage them to be Children, and not just laden with their diagnoses of special needs. Every time a child allows us inside to be part of their world, we’re blessed and should remember to listen, especially to children who might have difficulty expressing and using their voice. I’m also it should be noted, a huge freedom of speech person, and hate the silencing of anyone’s expression of themselves, especially children who are naturally predisposed to being silenced by the grown ups and by their peers.

    • The beauty and compassion of your comment is breath-taking. Your voice is inspiring. I’ve read through your comment more than once and look forward to reading it again; there are some lovely truths and pearls of wisdom through-out.

      On a side-note, my husband and I are very interested in the Montessori philosophy, and have tried to bring up both our children in-line with it. We haven’t given them a formal education in a Montessori school, but as you know and illustrate, it is more than a class-room; it is a way of respecting children, and encouraging and enabling them to find and express themselves.

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I truly appreciate it.

      With your permission, I would love to contact you with an interest in inviting you to write a post for my blog; I can see some very interesting ideas in your comment that I would love to read more about, and I enjoy your writing style. I won’t email you without your express say-so (I have your email already via the comment form). If you’re happy for me to make contact, just reply to this comment accordingly. Either way, thank you again for taking the time to comment.

      • Erytheia Red says:

        Yes, it would absolutely be ok for you to contact me. I have not gone deep into your blog, and would definitely need to read more to get a better sense of things. This particular post came to me at random and struck a chord in me earlier last week. I have read some of the other posts but I have not yet read widely. I am interested in autism as an involved and supportive aunt to my nephew who had an early (age 2) diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder. He is 14 years old now and his development continues to be very important to me. I was also interested as a child who grew up in America under the special needs umbrella. Child development is an interest of mine but not a specialty. In regards to this particular post I was caught immediately by the name Whanau, as I have visited New Zealand several times in my life for long periods, and have family friends there. I developed a great passion and fondness for the country and for the Maori language and culture especially–beyond what the tourist traditionally sees. Thank you for your kind words and for your interest in having me write here.

  5. Debby says:

    My five year old son with Autism has personified his favorite toys for a while now. But just in the past week has taken two as his “brothers”. We had a birthday party for one of them on Saturday and he has introduced them to everyone he sees since.

    I was shocked as well because I didn’t expect a child with Autism to have such imagination – but I am happy not to squash the joy he sees in his “brother”.

    Thanks for making me feel less alone.

  6. Spiros says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I can now deal with my son’s (diagnosed with autism) imaginary friends from a different perspective. My only concern is that my 4 years old son’s imaginary friends are two of his classmates. So they are not exactly imaginary… But he talks them as if they are with us, he accuses them if something bad happens, he gives them instructions.

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