Autism and Imagination

Art by an Autistic Child:  Saurus by T.T.  Photo courtesy of Yvonne Thompson on Flickr

Art by an Autistic Child: Saurus by T.T.  Photo courtesy of Yvonne Thompson on Flickr

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.

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11 Responses to Autism and Imagination

  1. autisticook says:

    Very, very well said.

    Also. MAPS! 😀

  2. ischemgeek says:

    Funny thing: I love maps. I’m fascinated by them. The whole world, represented by scribbles on a page! All of the places that you could go! How cool is that?!

    For a while, I thought I wanted to be an author as a kid (I do still want to write a book someday). First thing I’d do? Make a map. 😀

    Cuz from a map, you can get weather patterns and figure out geography and think about what kind of natural disasters are common and how that would affect culture and… yeah

  3. bjforshaw says:

    As I was growing up I was lucky enough that my patents had a subscription to National Geographic, and I used to love to get my hands on the maps that were often enclosed with the magazine: my bedroom walls were covered in maps instead of the various popular culture posters of my peers. I spent hours studying those maps, fascinated by the world that they described.

  4. suburp says:

    In Australia, a statistician just got the PM’s price for science for his works in cancer research ( I am not usually one to ‘diagnose’ brilliant people with autism because it suits my agenda on pointing out the all thepossibilities and positive points, when dealing with the very real problems it creates in my son’s life. (And, no pressure, boy, am not expecting you to win the Nobel price, OK) he might not be autistic at all, but that’s not my point.
    But I firmly believe our society has a problem with accepting different approaches, to research, to learning, to playing, to communication, and so on. Methods were tested, behaviour observed, this or that is considered norm, difference is ‘faulty’ and can’t bring the desired results. I believe autistics have to do a lot of extra work because they not only have to come up with a different method on those things (and that is creative!) but they also have to somehow “prove” that it works for them, that it brings ‘results’. That’s not exactly easy for playing though, but who on earth has come up with the idea that there is a ‘wrong’ and a ‘right’ way to play?

    • Aspermama says:

      It’s so, so true. And the idea that there can be a right and wrong way to do something as open-ended as play is just crazy.

      That is fascinating how Professor Speed used math to find better treatments for brain tumours. A lot of breakthroughs have come from using completely different approaches to solving problems, but we tend to forget that.

  5. Aspie Kent says:

    Excellently written piece, with several resonant themes. First, maps! Maps have always been a fascination of mine, as well. I drew maps as a child, affixed National Geographic maps to the walls of my room (like Ben, comment above), and created detailed maps of caves I explored as a teenager. I hadn’t really thought about it, but in the work I do, which covers a relatively broad arc of different activities, maps play a sometimes-very-important role. I gravitate toward those parts of my work, sometimes to an extreme (according to colleagues, at least)!

    In re-reading this post, I started to wonder about the difference in perspective between viewing a process or the result(s) of that process. Might one perspective lead to negative or dismissive thoughts, while a different view leads to positive or supportive thoughts? In other words, are dismissive views about expressions of creativity in autistic people based on examining the process that individual used (and finding that process different), as opposed to considering the product or result of the process? As an autistic person, I respect the views of those who credit the results of my creative expression, though I truly value those who can appreciate BOTH the process and the result!

    • Aspermama says:

      If I had a job that involved maps, I don’t think I’d be able to focus on anything else! That’s really neat that you get to use them in your work.

      That’s a very good point about our tendency to dismiss the results when we have negative views of the process. In our culture we have a tendency to get hung up on the process and I think it really hamper creativity and lead us to be dismissive of people who do things differently or think differently. It really makes you wonder how much we’ve lost out on because of it.

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