When we picture a child with autism playing, we picture cars lined up across the room-all except for one, and it’s been turned upside-down so the child can watch the wheels as they spin, over and over again. And so often we think that if these children had any imagination at all, they’d be driving the cars around the room, stopping for imaginary traffic lights and making parking garages out of old boxes.
But I wonder if this way of thinking shows a limited understanding of what imagination is and how it can be expressed.
Imagination is defined as the ability to form new images and sensations that are not perceived through the senses. That’s a pretty broad definition that leaves a lot of room for different kinds of experiences and expressions.
We don’t really think of arranging and organizing and creating structure as an imaginative, creative act, but there is a certain beauty in structure and order, in a mathematical proof or the structure of a double helix or even in a piece of code, and discovering or creating such order is, in a way, an imaginative act. That the play of children or the hobbies of adults on the spectrum often involve such structured activities as lining things up doesn’t necessarily preclude imagination or creativity.
And I think we should be careful in assuming that repetitive, sensory play does not involve imagination. When I was little, one of my favourite games was to line up my hardcover picture books on the floor and tap my wooden blocks against them (the sound they made was exquisite, to my ears anyway) sometimes stopping to arrange them. If you’d seen me doing this, it would’ve been easy to write it off as a simple, repetitive self-stimulatory exercise. But if you observed very closely, there was more to it than that. I was playing pretend, imagining that the blocks were people going to school. The sound and the repetition was part of the play, but not the whole of it.
Even things like fixating on spinning objects or light can involve imagination. There was a room in the house I grew up in that had wood-paneled walls full of knots and whorls. I used to sit and gaze at them, but I wasn’t just staring. I was seeing people and things in the shapes and making up stories about them. Sometimes I would stare at ceiling fans and imagine I was riding on the blades. Or spend a long time looking at light shimmering on the water or through the trees only to make paintings and drawings of it later.
And then there is the rich inner life that some on the spectrum have, to the point of creating entire imaginary worlds. When I was a kid, I created an entire world complete with maps, travel brochures, and a newspaper (you can imagine how thrilled I was when I discovered that Tolkein had created a world complete not only with rich history and mythology, but MAPS!!). This is not something that is easily expressed, and so it very easy to overlook.
As some have argued elsewhere, it is so important that we recognize the creativity and imagination of people with autism, which often appears in ways we might not expect. This is especially true of those we consider “low-functioning”. Artists and poets like Stephen Wiltshire (who started out drawing imaginary cityscapes) and Tito Mukhopadhyay, both of whom need support with daily living, are considered something of a rarity, but I wonder if they are just the surface of a deep well of untapped creative potential. Even engineers and mathematicians and programmers-people we don’t really consider creative-can use their imagination in their work.
There definitely is a tendency on our part to prefer things to be concrete and literal, and everyone has varying levels of imagination. But I wonder if it is like empathy, in that what appears to be a deficit is really just a difficulty with expression, or a different means of expression.