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Do People With Autism Lack Imagination?

By September 9, 2008

Over time, I've seen a whole lot of "intro to autism" articles. Very often, the articles will include a list of things that people with autism lack. Most of the time, no matter what the lists include, I find myself thinking of autistic people I know who lack the lacks they list.

One of the most common lacks generally listed is imagination. "People with autism lack imagination," the articles say, "and prefer to repeat the same experiences over and over again."

I think most of these writers are confusing imagination with a desire for novelty. And there are plenty of people out there who prefer consistency AND have terrific imaginations.

In fact, so far I haven't met a person with autism who has no imagination.

My own son, Tom, can make up stories and improvise music better than most typical kids his age. I know a girl with Asperger syndrome who wins poetry prizes. People with autism are extraordinary visual artists and dancers. Some are writers and poets.

It's true that many people with autism like consistency and predictability. Some like repetition. But my experience is that the consistency and predictability are tools for managing anxiety - not a substitute for creative thought and ability.

Do you know a person with autism whose creative ability makes him or her extraordinary? Share your stories!

September 10, 2008 at 5:31 am
(1) Sara B. says:

You seem to be confusing imagination with creativity. If you define imagination as something like the ability to pretend things are not what they are, or to consider that other people may see things differently than you do, etc., then I think lack of imagination is a huge problem for some, if not many, on the autism spectrum.

Lack of imagination does not preclude abundant creative exression of what a person on the spectrum experiences in life or envisions for the future, but the creativity would be closely tied to what is (or seems) real to that person. This is, and has been, one of the greatest frustraions of my life, interfering with play and conversation in childhood, and making it extremely difficult to understand others opinions, comments, questions and choices. There are a great many works of classic literature of which I am ignorant, even though I love to read and have read a lot of books and magazines most people have never heard of, because they are so unreal I cannot find any way to maintain interest in them long enough to read halfway through; so, again, limiting comprehension of conversations and allusions in other works of art.

Sometimes people say I have a great imagination because I can come up with unusual solutions to immediate problems, but I don’t consider that imagination because I am only searching my data bases of experience and knowledge for pieces that can fit together to make the needed whatever, not reaching out of what is real or known to create a dfferent pretend reality.

Well, I wasn’t only correcting your confusing use of the words imagination and creativity; I did feel a need to speak out about the inward effect of this particular lack, expecially since you seemed unconvinced that it is a real problem. I think it also relates to the difficulty many on the spectrum have with composing or pasing off a lie. Thank you.

Oh, and my teen daughter on the spectrum is a wonderful dramatic actress, but never got into pretend play except to participate as her younger sister instructed her to when she was about 5yo, and loves to sing in choir now, although she did not sing a note until she was almost 7yo, and did not like me to sing or hum when rocking her as a baby. (I am a good singer by everyone else’s account. lol) And we are both good poets; she actually entered a local contest and won 2nd place. :-)

September 10, 2008 at 6:25 am
(2) Mary H. says:

Imagination is having the ability to confront and deal with reality by using the creative power of the mind. It is being resourceful. My 9-year-old with autism is definitely resourceful and definitely deals with reality by being creative. It might not be in the way that others deal with things, but that’s what makes her creative! Thanks for your blog posting!

September 10, 2008 at 7:44 am
(3) autism says:

Sara – thanks so much for your comments. I am not on the autism spectrum myself, so can only reflect on the experiences I’ve had. One such was the first time I tried “Floortime” with my then-three-year-old son.

Tom had NEVER expressed any ability to engage in pretend play. but from the very first time I showed him how to “feed” a pretend cat, he was hooked. For a long time, his pretend play was very repetitive; but over time he went from re-enacting the same scenarios over and over again to enacting scenes from videos. From there, he began developing his own imaginary world.

Today, Tom is most certainly different from other kids. But he has created an entire imagined world that he shares with us – with unique critters who have their own personalities, qualities, likes, dislikes. He builds houses for them, finds them clothes, and much more. Beyond that, of course, he has some significant musical ability, and can improve based on emotions…

While I don’t think this is necessarily typical of people with autism, I can say that several of my acquaintances with autism share this type of experience.

I also do believe that when people way “autistic people have no imagination,” what they mean is that people with autism simply do the same thing over and over again, and have no ability to think outside the box, solve novel problems, or express themselves through the arts. And those beliefs, I’m sure you agree, are flat out wrong.

Lisa (autism guide)

September 10, 2008 at 11:39 am
(4) Fielding J. Hurst says:

As with just about everything else, I suspect their is a wide range of imagination on the spectrum, from little to lots.

My daughter does do some more typical pretend play now days.

I have wondered about this exact issue of late because of a new thing she has been doing. I have seen her several times with her eyes closed as if she is imagining something in her mind. She smiles and laughs as if she is watching a movie in her head. I guess this could be imagination or just recall.

September 10, 2008 at 10:19 pm
(5) Sheryl says:

Hi, I really liked your comment about imagination. Because my son with autism often likes to dress up as spiderman and then he puts “Peter Parker” clothes on over his suit. He runs around the room, takes his “Peter” suit off and then he is Spiderman. NO imagination? He is very autistic. He can barely talk and we have buy the same spiderman at the same store….. every time.

September 11, 2008 at 10:45 am
(6) Jessica says:

I don’t agree that all children on the Autism scale lack pretend play. My son grew up around horses. I remember him at the age of 3 pretending to eat grass and many other horse characteristics. He also pretends he is a dog. It is such a large umbrella of traits that I do not think any one of the characteristics can be applied to all.

September 11, 2008 at 12:36 pm
(7) Linda R says:

I must agree with everyone who has already posted a comment. My Aspergers daughter, now 15, has “been” just about every animal possible. Now, she no longer pretends to be these animals, but she writes the most amazing stories, from the animal’s perspective. As you read her “books”, you begin to believe they were actually written by an animal. She writes their feelings and thoughts as though she has actually been inside them. She can describe how it feels to have fur, to eat raw flesh, to hunt, etc. She has also won a poetry contest, for writing about being a husky who would like to be a wolf. Just amazing! Sometimes I think we are the ones who lack creativity and imagination.

September 11, 2008 at 1:41 pm
(8) Kristina Baade says:

I have not had many first hand experiences with people with autism. I do know a set of twins that are 13 years old and both autistic. They are both very artistic. They are very creative and are constantly drawing. Although the boy, who is more severe than his sister, tends to draw super heros, he also draws a variety of other things as well. His sister also draws many different things. She is very creative in making new designs, she does not just repeat designs that she knows.

Also, I am currently reading Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin who has autism. I was amazed to hear the things that she was able to picture in her head and then create. She really used her imagination to design many different livestock-handling facilities. Her ideas were all original and creative.

From my limited experience I can not make a general arguement that all autistic people are creative and imaginative. What I can say for sure is that not ALL autistic people lack creative ability and imagination.

September 11, 2008 at 7:58 pm
(9) Sandy says:

“People with autism lack imagination,” the articles say, “and prefer to repeat the same experiences over and over again.”

I find this to be true with my son. If anything, his restrictive play and when younger always being trains, there was no imagination at all. I think kids with autism, their imagination may be just a little different. I call my kid’s play Reality Imagination. He’ll play being a dog a lot more so than a cat but you better be treating him exactly as you would a dog, to a T. Another interesting thing is that some kids like mine, dictate their play to you and how you play with them. There’s no real spontaneous imagination here, it’s well thought out by that literal thinker.

September 12, 2008 at 1:05 am
(10) Azharuddin says:

Love is the bridge between two hearts. If one who falls in love may become happier or may be sad forever. Creativity is a part of love. I don’t agree with that Autism does not affect lovers. I am not telling that not to love. But how to learn and whom to love. My link from any kind of love problems.

Worried a Loved One with Autism!

September 12, 2008 at 1:07 am
(11) Azharuddin says:

Love is the bridge between two hearts. If one who falls in love may become happier or may be sad forever. Creativity is a part of loved one’s, they don’t lack it. Autism may be disorder. But how to learn and whom to love. My link from any kind of love problems.

Worried a Loved One with Autism!

November 16, 2010 at 1:39 pm
(12) Chelsea Jean Lord says:

I think people with autism can be very creative and imaginitive. I am a high-functioning autistic young women/ Asperger Syndrome and have always had a very active imagination. As a youngster I would play dr,
play house in a pickup-truck (back in the good old days), and would have tea parties. Now as an adult I write poems sometimes and do pottery and read books.
So Autism and related conditions have no impact on imagination whatesoever.
Chelsea Jean Lord

February 21, 2011 at 6:29 pm
(13) stan lawson says:

i know a person who is autistic and their creativity makes them extrodinary i actually know two people my brother and i we both have different creative imaginations he is able to create odd but intresting settings for plays and such and i am able to build the most intersting figures out of lego and bionicle pieaces

March 6, 2011 at 6:14 am
(14) thomas says:

I have 16 nieces and nephews, and I love each one of them very much. Yet, even with their quirks, they each play rigidly in there own way. For example, they tend to pick up things socially and reinvent what they like unto dolls or even make talking chairs. While for me, someone diagnosed, I would line up toys and make patterns. Although my play was restricted because of anxiety and sensory things (certain days I would be afraid of the toys), a professor from Caltech stated that my ability to make patterns, progress patterns, make shoes out of unrolled toilet cylinders that played as leather strips, my comedic logic, and 3D visualization (I’m like a complex CAD) is imagination. Sometimes I think my imagination is better because for me to do anything without someone doing it kinda first is amazing. Noticing a toy is “large” is one word out of many in the dictionary. I definitely did not just throw my toys on the floor and always be social, heck i’d pretend they were on the ceiling!

March 26, 2011 at 9:22 am
(15) Nordlys says:

Personally i think autism has nothing to do with imagination. I have HFA, and i’ve created a lot of characters and i dream imaginary landscapes (mostly uncontaminated). I also draw a lot and try to write stories.
When i talk, i probably have stiff/over precise way of talk (people think so), so people assume i lack of creativity and imagination. Of course, i recognize how my mind works between Sara’s words, but i do not agree with her when she say that is not imagination just because she search between ‘data bases and experiences’ instead of taking something from scratch (that i think is not possible, some people just do not think where they ideas come from)
I may say other think based on my experience but they are OT.
Sorry for my english, i’m italian.

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