What is imagination? It’s the ability to think up scenarios, settings, possibilities and things. Autistics are completely able to do this – yet the myth persists that autism means impaired or absent imagination. There has been a grave misunderstanding of the fact that it’s social imagination that is impaired. Social imagination is basically the ability to empathise with others and predict their intentions. It has nothing to do with the rich internal mind of the individual. Social imagination deficits are of course an impairment, this deficit is what makes autistics struggle socially, in friendships, communication and keeping themselves safe.
Simply because an autistic may not display the presence of their imagination in a way that is considered “typical”, does not mean they do not possess one! Often absence of pretend play is cited as lacking imagination and therefore an autistic trait. But what if they are looking at it the wrong way?
When a child with autism is spinning wheels or lining toys up, who knows what is going on in their mind? They may be displaying high intelligence and organisational skills, working out how to perfect the alignment of the row of boxes (tomorrow’s draughtsman) or simply stimming by looking at the wheels. Hyperfocus on an interesting or pleasurable activity is not evidence of lack of imagination (whilst it may appear rigid, why is it that so many autistics are perfectionists and pay attention to detail – spending a long time doing one thing, could be viewed as a productive use of imagination). In research, what is seen as an impairment, could be a characteristic that will be useful to that individual in their career or interests later on in life.
“Creativity and Imagination in Autism and Asperger Syndrome” (1999)
“Three studies are reported that address the often described impoverished creativity in autism. Using the Torrance Creativity Tests, Experiment found that children with autism and Asperger syndrome (AS) showed impairments. Experiment tested two explanations of these results: the executive dysfunction and the imagination deficit hypotheses. Results supported both hypotheses.”
“Exploring the Nature of the Imagination Deficit in Children with High Functioning Autism: A New Approach”
“The thesis concludes that whilst some difficulties in imagination are evident in high functioning autism, this deficit is not absolute.”
“Autism and the Imaginative Mind”
“These symptoms gave rise to the assumption that autism impairs imagination. Symptoms consistent with this view are prominent throughout the clinical and research profile of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). However, some individuals diagnosed with autism exhibit excellent gifts in the field of creative imagination such as in arts, music, and poetry. Some of these personages who suffered from autism include Samuel Beckett, Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.”
As the last link above shows, there is no lack of creative autistics. Look at Temple Grandin, if she showed no imagination how could she have thought up equipment solutions to cattle handling? Beethoven is now thought to have been autistic – how did he think up his musical compositions without a great imagination? This parent describes the wonderful imagination of her autistic son:
“My Child With Autism’s Imaginary World Is as Vivid as the Real One”
“It’s often said that kids with autism don’t have an imagination or, in the more nuanced books on the topic, lack “imaginary play.” I’ve never found this to be the case with any of the kids I’ve seen on the spectrum. In fact, I’d argue the reverse from my parenting perspective. I think kids on the spectrum often have such vivid powers of imagination that the “real world” has difficulty competing.”
“Autistic people are more creative than you might think”
“Autism is commonly, if mistakenly, associated more with logical thinking than creative expression. But new research suggests we might need to rethink our views on creativity and autism.
The criteria we use to diagnose autism have long made reference to the fact that autistic imagination appears to be limited, and this trait is used as a way of detecting the condition. Yet in reality we still see many extremely creative autistic people.
This paradox led researchers at the universities of East Anglia and Stirling to study creativity and autistic traits in a large group of both autistic and non-autistic individuals.
The authors found that individuals with higher levels of autistic traits made fewer suggestions than those with lower levels of autistic traits. Surprisingly, however, the suggestions from those with higher levels of traits had greater originality. It seems that being on the autistic spectrum is associated with being able to generate suggestions that were more creative.”
So maybe autistic imagination is in fact more worthwhile and useful, than that of the average person, as it results in solutions and great artistry!
Autistics are also known for inventing neologisms, especially as children, before being forced to comply with being the same as everyone else takes over their functioning and makes them lose the characteristic. To think up neologisms, involves plenty of imagination. Words may be thought up based on the item or object reminding them of something, or appearing to need to be associated with a particular sound (this is where we also might overlap into the world of synaesthesia) that they want to create their own appropriate word for.
There are quite a few actors and singers on the autistic spectrum (Dan Aykroyd, Vincent D’Onofrio, Craig Nicholls, Gary Numan, Daryl Hannah, Courtney Love and Susan Boyle to name just a few) and to do those jobs you have to have creativity and imagination.
Yes, autism means deficits, struggles and difficulties – we cannot deny it is disabling. But it must also be understood that many autistics also have skills and talents and the parts of us that are positives and benefits (or simply normal, but different) should not be misrepresented as ‘missing’ or defective. There are enough problems with myths and stereotypes around autism, resulting in widespread discrimination as to our capabilities and capacity resulting in shocking human rights abuses. It’s time for change.