Imaginative Play

[Preface: My son (I’ll refer to him as PJ) was officially diagnosed as autistic two months after his third birthday, although he was receiving early intervention care through the prior year. Before, PJ’s father and I thought that perhaps he was just a late talker, and even upon diagnosis the psychologist assured us that since it’s difficult to accurately test very young children, there was a chance his diagnosis would one day be “reversed.” However, as he grew from a toddler to a child, differences between PJ and his peers became more and more evident.]


There are clearly a few notable differences between the behavior of autistic children and their neurotypical peers, but there is one so-called symptom that really bugs me: The Diagnostic Criteria for Autistic Disorder (see also criteria changes ) Part II/C–Delays or abnormal functioning in symbolic or imaginative play.

At a recent IEP meeting, the teacher stated that PJ had regressed from earlier progress of sharing toys in mutual play. Her complaint was that PJ was now interacting improperly with toys–“holding, shuffling, arranging or stimming with” the toys, rather than actually playing with them.

I once read something from a parent who said he viewed his autistic child as not much different from himself–just with some of the dials turned a little higher, and some a little lower. I relate to this comparison. When I was a child, I knew how to engage in the kind of play that was expected of me when friends came to visit, but it wasn’t how I preferred to play. When I was alone, I would gather my Barbies, simply hold each one, and mentally chart their existence. More than just naming the dolls, I would map their family trees and entire genealogies. I imagined their careers and the professions of their grandparents and the future professions of their offspring. I decided their favorite colors, biggest fears, where they traveled, and what they ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And I designed all their spaces! Without Barbie furniture, I used scraps and bits or non-related toys to represent desks, dishwashers, books, and pans. By the time I felt prepared to act out what I had silently scripted, I was too exhausted and utterly satisfied to actually play with my toys.

To a critical outside observer, I would have appeared only to hold or shuffle my toys–certainly not anything imaginative. The careful planning of my Barbies’ homes, malls, and churches would have seemed a preoccupation with arranging insignificant items, and my desire not to be interrupted could have been taken as an abnormal response to social interaction (DSM:II/A). If anyone had cared to ask me what I was doing, I would have had the verbal communication skills to explain it to them. My son PJ would not.

Autistic children have special needs, but they also have the same needs as every other child. We must presume competence–not just for children, but for autistic adults as well, regardless of their ability to communicate. We all are more than the tally of diagnostic results that are measured by us or against us.


Filed under Autism, Neurodiversity

3 responses to “Imaginative Play

  1. Pingback: Outdoor Play Helps Improve Autistic Symptoms | Mental Flowers

  2. AspieKid

    This has always been something I hated about the criteria too. Autistics are more imaginative I think than neurotypicals are, but their imaginations work in different ways. I wrote about that in one of my posts called “Preoccupational Therapy”, which is no longer on the Internet.

    I liked to line things up and stack things when I was a kid. There is a lot of imagination in that kind of play, and it is a very health kind of imagination, imagining all the possible ways things can be stacked or arranged in permutations. Stacking as a form of play is not much different than building things with Lego, which requires lots of creativity and imagination. No therapist should be telling kids that stacking things is the “wrong” way to play.

    Arranging things, which many therapists discourage autistic kids from doing, was what led me to understand permutations, and ultimately prepared me for advanced math and computer science. Arrangements are also very artistic. What looks to neurotypicals like unimaginative play is sometimes way more imaginative than any of them could ever imagine.

    I think some autistic kids are born with an innate understanding of Combinatorics, Discrete Mathematics and Discrete Geometry. That is a more healthy form of imagination, in my opinion, than pretending to live in fictional worlds. I always thought kids were a little crazy who pretended all the time. It made them detached from reality. And now that they are grown up, it seems like quite a few of them still live in fictional world. They never outgrew the play habits they learned as kids, and some of them seem delusional because of it.

    • Candace Cooper Mullis

      I took a class called “Science, Poetry, and The Imagination,” and we discussed the use of imaginative thought in the construction of scientific models (among other topics). For example, Watson/Crick building the double-helix model of DNA structure, based only on a single x-ray diffraction image, required a tremendous amount of imagination. Arrangements–expressed in models–enhance understanding of possible functions; conversely, conceptual functions can be understood through the use of concrete models (like poetry), which is also a form of communication. Arranging things can be a useful and creative activity, but if it doesn’t have an obvious imitative or “pretend” quality, educators are not likely to recognize it as imaginative.

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