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ASPartOfMe
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29 Sep 2022, 7:27 am

Autistic children with imaginary friends have better social skills, just like neurotypical childre

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Imaginative, or “pretend”, play in childhood is important. It offers opportunities for social interaction as well as the chance to learn how to understand social signals and the minds of others. A common form of pretend play is the creation of an imaginary friend, and research with neurotypical children has found that children with imaginary friends tend to show better understanding of the mental and emotional states of others, greater focus on the mental states of friends, and superior communication skills.

Autism has been associated with deficits in both pretend play and social skills. But Paige Davis and colleagues have previously found that although autistic children are less inclined to create imaginary friends, when they do create them, they are similar to those of neurotypical children in terms of their social attributions (e.g. mental states, personality traits), reported function (e.g. social, comfort) and gender. Now, Davis and her team have examined whether autistic children who have imaginary friends also experience the social benefits seen among neurotypical children.

For the new study, published in Autism the team recruited 124 parents of autistic children aged between 5 and 12, with measures administered online. The parents answered up to three questions regarding their child’s imaginary friend – whether they had one, and – if so – at what age had they created them, as well as why they thought they had done so.

They then rated their children’s communication skills, social skills, and social understanding, using established scales. For communication, parents rated the frequency of certain aspects of their child’s language use (e.g. “Produces utterances that sound babyish because they are just 2 or 3 words long, such as ‘me got ball’ instead of ‘I’ve got a ball’.”) The social understanding scale examined the children’s Theory of Mind – the ability to represent and understand others’ mental states. Subscales looked at children’s understanding of others’ beliefs, perceptions, and emotions, with parents again indicating how frequently their children behaved in certain ways (e.g. “Talks about people’s mistaken beliefs”). Finally, to measure social skills, parents answered questions on their children’s friendships, and rated their social interaction skills (e.g. “how well does your child start conversations with others?”).

The team found that autistic children with imaginary friends scored higher than those without imaginary friends on both social measures. On the social understanding scale, they scored higher on understanding others’ emotions and beliefs (although no difference was found on understanding others’ perceptions). With regard to social skills, children with imaginary friends were reported to be more interested in making friends and spending time with peers. These differences were present regardless of children’s communication ability. Surprisingly, almost 50% of parents reported their child having an imaginary friend. This is higher than the proportion (16%) in Davis and colleagues’ previous study, although the authors point out that the children in the new study were older.

These results offer interesting preliminary evidence that the link between imaginary friends and improved social competence observed in neurotypical children is also present in autistic children. The results also suggest that Theory of Mind is not a “single” skill that is impaired in autistic children – as has been claimed in the past – but something involving different areas which may vary in relation to pretend play behaviour. More generally, the findings suggest that imaginary friends represent an intriguing new way to examine the relationships between pretend play and social profiles in autism.

However, it’s important to acknowledge some limitations. Firstly, the direction of any causal relationship is not established: it’s not clear whether having an imaginary friend leads to better social skills, whether more socially skilled children are more likely to create imaginary friends, or even whether another as-yet-unidentified variable may be involved. This is important for future research to address, especially as these relationships may differ in autistic children relative to neurotypical children. Secondly, relying solely on parental reports, something the authors did due to COVID-19 restrictions, is not ideal. Children’s perspectives are lost, and parents may have forgotten, or not be aware of, their imaginary friends


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IsabellaLinton
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29 Sep 2022, 7:31 am

I had an imaginary husband, Elton John.
He was best friends with Gene Simmons and Parker Stevenson.

We were married about five years.
Then I divorced Elton and married Ozzy.

* I modelled my marital relationships on Fred and Wilma Flintstone



HP Love
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29 Sep 2022, 8:30 am

I had imaginary friends that I knew were imaginary and that I named The Imaginary Friends, like I knew imaginary friends were a thing and had to come up with something to fill the role. I wonder if that reflects an early attempt to be like others despite not really feeling it.



IsabellaLinton
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29 Sep 2022, 8:45 am

I don't remember knowing the term "imaginary friends" at the time.
I didn't talk out loud to them, and no one knew they existed except me.
It was more like I lived in a dream world.

I should clarify I wasn't a child married to Elton and Ozzy.
In my head I was an adult woman (with Cindy Brady's hair from Brady Bunch - lol).

I was definitely trying to be like others.
The only marital model I had was The Flintstones so I copied that.

I ended up divorcing Elton because I didn't get along with his mother.
That was based on Fred Flintstone fighting with his mother-in-law, Pearl.

:P



ASPartOfMe
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29 Sep 2022, 10:08 am


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DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman


klanka
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29 Sep 2022, 10:12 am

IsabellaLinton wrote:
I had an imaginary husband, Elton John.
He was best friends with Gene Simmons and Parker Stevenson.

We were married about five years.
Then I divorced Elton and married Ozzy.

* I modelled my marital relationships on Fred and Wilma Flintstone

lol



CockneyRebel
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29 Sep 2022, 10:29 am

That makes sense, because children on the spectrum who have imaginary friends are constantly practicing their social skills.


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Fern
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29 Sep 2022, 12:10 pm

My first thought was "Dang, if I had a ton of imaginary friends then I should be great socially!"
-but then I remembered that all the imaginary friends I had as a kid were animals.

To be fair, I am pretty good with animals :lol:



CockneyRebel
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29 Sep 2022, 12:14 pm

I'm also good with animals. I get along better with animals than I do with people.


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babybird
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29 Sep 2022, 12:36 pm

CockneyRebel wrote:
I'm also good with animals. I get along better with animals than I do with people.


A lot of people do. I kinda like people most of the time.

I always thought I had imaginary friends but I've learned that (because I have some serious disturbances) I actually lived out my life as an alter ego and that person had both imaginary and real life friends.

It's a bit complicated but I do have quite good social skills so at least I got something out of it.


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29 Sep 2022, 2:20 pm

If I played imaginary games on my own I would stand there having full blown conversations with invisible people.

Also I made up an imaginary friend to help me co-operate better. Sometimes I had trouble "enjoying the moment" and would find anything to whine and cry about during times when I should have been having fun (like when my cousins came over to play). So to help settle my behaviour I started to pretend I was this girl I made up, a neurotypical girl who was always cheerful and hardly ever whined. I made up a name for her and even a family. My cousins even got to know her. And while I was her, I'd pretend the real me was still there, whining at everything and nothing, and I would dismiss me like "shut up Joe90!" And my cousins loved it.


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29 Sep 2022, 2:26 pm

i talked to my older brother's friends like i was a sargeant and they were recruits or privates,
i wasnt very popular with them after that



Last edited by klanka on 29 Sep 2022, 2:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.

babybird
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29 Sep 2022, 2:27 pm

klanka wrote:
i talked to my older brother's friends like i was a seargant and they were recruits or privates,
i wasnt very popular with them after that


:lol: trying to picture that


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klanka
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29 Sep 2022, 2:29 pm

whenever i caught them standing in a line facing the same direction, like the bit in the movies where the sargeant inspects the recruits and gives them s**t
:lol:
Instead of shouting I critiqued their performance in the last battle they fought, they just stood there confused



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29 Sep 2022, 2:32 pm

klanka wrote:
whenever i caught them standing in a line facing the same direction, like the bit in the movies where the sargeant inspects the recruits and gives them s**t
:lol:
Instead of shouting I critiqued their performance in the last battle they fought, they just stood there confused


So funny. I can see why they would be confused.


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klanka
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30 Sep 2022, 6:46 am

yeah my older brother dissuaded me from doing it