Autism, Ahead of Print.
Past research shows that autistic children can and do create imaginary companions (ICs), and that these ICs resemble those that neurotypical children create. Neurotypical children creating ICs have been found to have significantly more developed theory of mind (ToM) and social understanding among other enhanced social cognitive skills. The study set out to determine if this finding applies to autistic children. Parents of 124 (38 female) autistic children, ages from 5 to –12 years old, completed questionnaires evaluating communication, social understanding, and social skills. Children with ICs had significantly higher ToM and social skills scores regardless of their communication abilities. Findings suggest that there is a variability in ToM and social skills in autistic children in reference to an IC play profile. Results are discussed in terms of direction of causality and lab-based investigations.Lay abstractResearch on neurotypical children with imaginary friends has found that those with imaginary friends have better social skills and are more able to think about how other people’s minds work compared to children without imaginary friends. Research shows that some autistic children also create imaginary friends. This article is the first to look at whether or not autistic children with imaginary friends have stronger social skills and an improved ability to think about others’ minds than those without imaginary friends. We asked parents to report about their children aged 5 to 12. Finding almost half reported their child had an imaginary friend, a much larger number than previous research with younger children. Our findings also suggested that autistic children with imaginary friends were better able to understand others’ minds and had stronger social skills than their peers without imaginary friends. The children’s language ability did not influence this. The findings of this study add to the evidence that with respect to the creation imaginary friends and their potential benefits, the play profiles of autistic children are similar to the general population. It also provides more evidence that the understanding of others’ minds is not all or nothing in autism and gives reason for researchers to investigate whether the causes of these differences are the same or different for autistic children.
Autistic children who create imaginary companions: Evidence of social benefits
Autism, Ahead of Print.