Kids With Autism Can Have Imaginary Friends, Too
Playing with an imaginary friend is frequently the way that children learn social skills, solidify their understanding of right and wrong, and tease out complexities of human relationships. A new study lead by Dr Paige Davis, who specializes in imaginary companions and lectures at the University of Huddersfield, used data collected in the US and UK to show that autistic children also have a capacity to create these emotional bonds with imaginary friends.
The research, described in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders by Dr Davis and her three co-authors, is based on evidence gathered from 215 questionnaires completed by approximately equal numbers of parents of children with typical development and of children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Most importantly,”the finding that children diagnosed with ASD even spontaneously create such imaginary companions refutes existing beliefs that they are not imagining in the same way as typically developing children,” said Dr Davis.
The findings do indicate that fewer children with ASD create an imaginary companion – 16.2 per cent as opposed to 42 per cent of the typically developing kids. Also children with autism began playing with their imaginary friends at a significantly later age and were much more likely to play with a “personified object,” such as a stuffed toy or doll.
But the crux of Dr Davis’s conclusion is that while there may be small differences in the way that typically abled and autistic kids engage with their imaginary friends, the quality of play — and therefore possibly the benefits they derive from it — are the same.
“Imaginary companions are special because they are social in nature and children with autism have issues with social development and communication. So if you are actually creating a mind for an imaginary person you are involving yourself in a range of social activities that the autism diagnosis itself would say you couldn’t do.”
Dr Davis believes that this new insight into the imaginations of children with ASD could lead to new therapies or interventions that incorporate their capacity to imagine. Her next area of focus will be evaluating the benefits of imaginary play in both sets of kids; if the benefits are in fact the same, then imaginary companions may play a larger role in the way experts treat kids with ASD.