Autism and Imagination

From time to time, we find Malaika Rose outside in the garden, pacing up and down, while gesturing to herself. When asked what she is busy doing, her answer is always the same – she’s busy playing imaginary games.

But, one of the signs of autism is “the inability to engage in social imaginative play” which is often interpreted as a lack of imagination, such as stated in this example: “Many people with autism have difficulty thinking imaginatively and in young children this is often demonstrated by a lack of/or repetitive pretend play. “ As autistics, we can just shake our heads at this very poor understanding of the relationship between the autistic mind and the imagination.

Social Imagination is not imagination – It is the ability to watch others and work out their intentions, their thoughts and interpret what they may do next. Social imagination allows people to understand and predict the behaviour of other people. It also helps people to make sense of abstract ideas, and to imagine situations outside our immediate daily routine. Lack of social imagination is why so many autistic people struggle with change: they just cannot imagine things happening any other way.

According to Jessica Penot, in Psychology Today, the fundamental problem in assessing imagination in children with autism is that clinicians assume there is only one way to have an imagination or engage in imaginative play. Neurotypical children often engage in imaginary play by projecting their imagination onto toys and objects and interacting with other children. If children lack these types of play, observers assume that they lack imagination.

She continues to say that, ”in my experience, people with autism sometimes have much richer and deeper imaginations than neurotypicals and often retreat into dissociative worlds of imagination when they are stressed. The problem is that they can’t properly verbalize what these worlds are in a way neurotypicals can easily understand and the way they engage in imaginative play is different from what neurotypicals expect.”

Our Inner World

In 2021, the Neuroclastic Blog surveyed more than 200 Autistic people to ask about their inner-worlds and imaginations. According to the article, “The responses were as vivid, diverse, and creative as the individuals who contributed.” It showed that 90% of autistic people have an inner world that they escape to and even more have internal conversations.

When asked the primary reasons why they escape to this inner world were:

  • It allows them to escape the real world,
  • It helps them to problem-solve, and
  • To practise interactions with other people.

According to the blog, some of the “other” reasons from the question above were really interesting.

There was providing a counterpoint to keep things fair:

“I talk to my inner self about everything. He helps me. We don’t see things the same way, but through ongoing dialogue about everything that matters, we draw conclusions that I act on.”

To reduce the stress of being emotionally or circumstantially unprepared:

“I mostly use inner conversations as a means to re-visit or to plan ahead for conversations. Currently doing a lot of pretend confrontations with my family as such is on the horizon and it’s stressing me. It acts as practice and clarification of my own thoughts. Similar thing for roleplaying. Going into character and having made up conversations with other people in universe such that I may practice the role and expand the thoughts, values, vocabulary and mannerisms of the character. To summarize I suppose that I host internal conversations to alleviate the stress that comes with being unprepared.”

For others, it is a more systematized way of understanding and processing feelings:

“To me, it has also being a very important way of learning about my feelings, since sometimes I can’t recognize or understand them in me in the outside, but sometimes I can if I experiment them in a different world, from a different perspective.”


Is it something to be worried about?

Autistic inner-worlds are richly-detailed and of vital importance to the people who use their minds so creatively. The stereotype that Autistic people lack imagination or creativity, is clearly baseless and the layered and detailed nature of this internal world-building allows us to exist in parallel with the world that should be and the one that is.

Ingela Visuri from the University of Gävle in Sweden found that daydreams and pretend worlds help autistic people to cope with stress and anxiety in their real lives in her study (the original is in Swedish, so here is a link to the English summary) of 17 young adults diagnosed with hyper-functional autism. According to Visuri, "One girl told me that when her parents divorced, she went into an imaginary world of robots and characters from video games. There, she enacted the problems she had in her everyday life through her fantasy characters and she came up with solutions which she could later use when she returned to reality.”

As a final though, in the article she wrote for The Art of Autism, 24 year old autistic Baylie Nixon describes both the risk of becoming too entangled in our fantasy world as well as the essential role they play in our emotional well-being.

She says, “If I only focus on reality’s negatives, I become exhausted, depressed, and very bitter. If I only focus on the positives and the imaginary world which follows, I become complacent, childish, delusional, and just overall dysfunctional. A balance of both is essential to my ability to do well in life, and I have a hard time believing that statement only applies to me.”

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