My son is pretending to be a puppy. We’ve just finished looking after my sister in law’s dog, so both boys are very interested in all things canine at the moment. I’m resistant to getting a new dog, but the whole dog sitting experience may just have been a clever ploy by the rest of my family (led of course, by my wife) to make it happen. I’m not about to give in! Besides, B is doing a perfectly passable impression of a dog himself: running, barking, eating things off the floor, chewing things he shouldn’t. I ask him what type of dog he’s pretending to be. He answers, “I’m pretending to do a law course.” I am totally thrown by this, and only later learn that he means lure course. Apparently this is a feature of Nintendogs, which he has also been playing. Anyway, the point is that he is fully involved in this pretend play, which raises a question. Since when did my autistic son become so imaginative? Isn’t a lack of imagination a hallmark of the condition?
The answer is no. People on the spectrum can be highly imaginative, as I’m sure anyone with experience of autism will testify to. My son is increasingly imaginative and engages in all sorts of play, both on his own and with his brother. I’ve often found this a rather contradictory and confusing aspect of autism, until a recent lightbulb moment, when an important distinction was made clear. Children and adults on the spectrum often struggle not with imagination, but with social imagination. This is an important difference. Social imagination is a person’s ability to predict what others are thinking and feeling, to imagine and predict what might happen next, to understand the consequences of what is said and done in a social situation. This makes a lot of sense and explains the difficulties many people on the spectrum have with dealing with people and what to them can be the unpredictability of social interaction.
I was feeling pretty stupid for not making this distinction before. I must have read it a hundred times without ever letting it really sink in. Then I read a recent thread on Mumsnet, which sought to clarify the distinction between imagination and social imagination. Thankfully, I am not alone in my misconception. Many of the commenters on the thread spoke of how their asd child was also highly imaginative and how it went against their preconceptions. The thread is worth a read, as is the blog link on it.
So yes, my son is imaginative. But what of his social imagination? How is he with people? Without a doubt, my son is a friendly, gregarious little boy. He will talk to anyone. As I write, I am in a children’s soft play area. I cannot hear B, but I can see him. He is talking to an adult stranger, although I cannot work out what he is saying. I have no doubt that it is a very one way conversation. B will be talking, no doubt, about cars. He may have asked the stranger what she drives, but that will be the only give and take in the conversation. The rest of the conversation, if it can be called that, will be a monologue by my son on his current favourite make and model. He will not read the stranger’s expression, not pick up on her body language (or bemusement/lack of interest/annoyance) and give her few opportunities to join in. He will not understand the rules of conversation because he lacks the social imagination to do so. It is a very typical, very common scenario. B will talk to anyone and is not shy about starting a conversation. It must, of course, relate to whatever his special interest is. Try to steer the conversation elsewhere and he will simply wander off. He is brutally honest in that respect.
When it is time to leave the play area, I notice B has a small toy, the sort you get in a plastic egg from a vending machine. “Where did you get that?” I ask. “From the machine.” he answers. “Where did you get the money?” I ask. “From the lady.” he replies. Here’s me thinking he was talking about cars. He was actually tapping her for 20p. Which she gave to him. Words fail me.
While I’m on the subject of the indoor play area, let me share another little anecdote. B is in the under 3s only area (he’s five, but keeping him out of there is a relentlessly thankless task). He is climbing along the edge of the area, but there is a girl in his way. The mother of the girl is sat on the table next to me, but is unaware it is my son. “GET OUT OF THE WAY! NOW!” screams B (with no thought of how she might feel). When she doesn’t move, he screams at her again. Realising he is potentially psychotic, the girl runs to her mum. “That boy is shouting at me” she whines to mummy (the little sneak). The mum asks why, to which the girl answers, “no reason” (clearly there was a reason- she was in his way). “If it happens again, tell me. I’ll soon deal with him” she threatens. At this point, B ambles over to me. The woman, sat next to me, falls silent. Awkward.
My son’s difficulty with social imagination can be seen in a number of other ways. He is an excellent reader, but his comprehension of situations in books (specifically fiction) is poor. He struggles to describe characters’ reactions and interactions, motivations and likely responses. He cannot tell me what a character might be thinking or feeling, beyond the most basic of (usually visual) clues. It’s little wonder that he prefers non-fiction so much. He also avoids the type of play that involves characters interacting. We’ve bought him many toys over the years that might encourage this, such as Playmobil sets with families. The characters get ignored, but he will, predictably, play with the vehicles. It’s difficult as a parent to relate to this. Playing imaginatively with toys such as these had been such a huge part of my childhood. My son plays differently.
I can clearly remember when B’s lack of social imagination was first pointed out. It seems like a lifetime ago but it’s been less than two years. We had our first appointment with a speech and language consultant. We had concerns over his apparent speech delay and concerns had been raised by his nursery. But the consultant seemed less concerned with his lack of speech than she did with his lack of interest in the toys in the room. He had an intense interest in the drawers, filing cabinets, stationery and computer in the room, but was oblivious to the teddy bear’s picnic she had set up. Part of the assessment involved imaginative play with the teddies (pouring drinks, serving toy cake etc). My son had no interest. He didn’t want to say hi to the teddy, he didn’t want to put them in the house. He didn’t want to look at them and he wouldn’t look at the consultant much either. He quickly became restless and agitated and bored, but I knew what to do. I took out my phone and handed it to him. He immediately immersed himself in pressing buttons and making things flash and beep. It was a lightbulb moment for the consultant. The delayed speech, lack of imaginative play, intense interest in buttons, the restlessness. It all added up. By then, we’d done the maths too. We didn’t need to be told he was autistic.
As I recounted the details to my parents later that day, I cried a little. My mum and dad understood that I was upset, but I doubt they could comprehend why. They could not equate what I had told them with the (rare) sight of their son in tears. They did not know what this meant, in the way that I knew what it meant. This was probably around the time we first used the word autistic in connection with their grandson. They are still trying to work out what that means now, let alone back then. It was difficult for me to make them see the implications of what the health advisor had observed, the enormity of my son’s inability to interact socially. My parents have not seen me cry since that day.
This week I have been reading ‘Look Me in the Eye’ by John Elder Robison. The book is a memoir about growing up with Aspergers, and the difficulties encountered. Robison describes how, “People with Asperger’s or autism often lack the feelings of empathy that naturally guide most people in their interactions with others… I have learnt that kid’s with Asperger’s don’t pick up on social cues. They don’t recognise a lot of body language or facial expressions. I know I didn’t.” Clearly he has struggled throughout his life but at the same time, despite the lack of social imagination, Robison is clearly a very imaginative person. He is able to write a compelling story and has carved a very successful pathway through life for himself. This gives me hope.
Despite the problems that a lack of social imagination can bring, it is difficult to think of it as a disability, at least not yet. My son is at the age when this lack of social understanding and imagination makes him an utterly charming, beguiling, adorable little boy. He knows no social barriers and therefore does not withhold his feelings or his reactions. He will race up to a familiar person and shout their name, grab their hand and, of course, talk to them about cars. It’s the same with strangers. I watch people as they melt in his company, charmed and disarmed by his utter lack of self-consciousness. He’s easy to fall in love with and popular with the staff at school.
The time may soon come when B’s lack of social imagination causes problems. He may begin to crave, but not access, close friendships with other children. He may become conscious of his own differences, of not fitting in. We also need to instill in him an awareness of ‘stranger danger’. He lives in a world of complete innocence and sadly, but necessarily, a little bit of reality may be required. I worry about him.
For now though, I think my son benefits, rather than suffers from, a lack of social imagination. My eldest son told me recently that B is “famous” at school. Everyone knows my boy. You can take that to mean what you want; perhaps ‘infamous’ would be more appropriate! Of course, he’s oblivious to his fame. To him, the world is a playground. He doesn’t have time to stop and think what people may think of him. Most of the time, he’s too busy enjoying himself. Wouldn’t you like to be like that?