What to Do When Your Autistic Child Has an Invisible Friend

Can Autistic Kids Create Imaginary Friends?Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/57570482@N06/5299267158/

Has your autistic child suddenly started talking to someone who isn’t really there? Have they introduced you to one or more of their invisible friends? Maybe they are beginning to blame this friend for some of their inappropriate behaviors. If so, you may be feeling confused, worried, and concerned about what they’re doing, especially if you’ve bought into the outdated notions that autistic kids cannot be creative and having imaginary friends is bad.

Dr. Spock, a well-known child psychologist, once hypothesized that these friends surface due to a child’s loneliness, difficulties getting along with others, or their birthplace in the family. He insisted that if these friends continued past the age of 4, or so, there was something wrong within the child’s life.[2] However, scientific research about invisible playmates hasn’t supported his ideas. Yet, the stereotypes associated with both autism and imaginary friends continue.

There are many extreme views floating around the web that link autism with mental disorders or imaginary friends with psychosis. But the prevailing view today among medical and psychological professionals is that these playmates are simply a part of a child’s normal development. That includes children who have autism.

How Many Children Have Invisible Friends?

If you never had an imaginary friend when you were growing up, you might be surprised to learn that invisible companions and playmates are extremely common among preschool and elementary-aged children. That’s what a 2004 study performed by Marjorie Taylor[3] and associates discovered. In fact, in the 152 pre-schoolers and the 100 children they re-looked at three years later, they found that 65% of these young children (preschool to age 7) had created imaginary friends at some point in their lives.[1] In addition, the one-third who didn’t create imaginary companions scored much lower on emotional understanding skills than those who did.

Why Do Children Create Imaginary Friends?

That’s fine for a typical child, but what about autistic children? Since they don’t think or reason in the same way that other children do, are imaginary friends something to worry about? Most children invent characters to:

  • provide comfort
  • help them deal with a major life change
  • acquire a new skill
  • work through a difficult problem
  • overcome a fear
  • explore new ideas
  • help them get along with others
  • learn about their environment
  • gain a sense of competence and control

Imaginary friends are also an outlet for feelings that a child is having trouble expressing. In the following short video, an autistic child is acting out his troubled feelings through interacting and playing with his friend.

While typical kids use make-believe to cope with the stress and anxiety of life, most children with special needs don’t have that option. However, the autism spectrum comes in different combinations of symptoms. Some children and teens, especially those with Asperger’s Syndrome or high-functioning autism do possess the capability to invent relatives, peers, and animals – someone they can relate too, and someone who can help them cope with life.

Generally, children outgrow their need for imaginary characters, but for those with autism, this growth doesn’t always occur as quickly as many parents believe it should. Part of the problem has to do with the very nature of autism. A child’s development can be seriously delayed and their specific neurological issues interfere with acquiring the coping skills that are necessary for a child to put away their childhood companions.

Because of these differences, many autistics in their late teens continue to use imaginary friends to cope with the world. Since mental friends are rare in typical teenagers, the practice tends to raise serious concerns among the parents of autistic children. Are persistent, invisible companions and animals a creative way for an autistic teen to deal with their problems? Or is it a sign that the child has crossed over the line into delusion?

What is Psychosis?

Many Parents Worry About Their Autistic Child's BehaviorsCredit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/17160935@N03/8441511898/

For many years, those affected by autism found themselves under a schizophrenic label. In fact, the qualifications for a diagnosis for children on the autism spectrum are still found in The Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). That can cause a bit of confusion and misunderstanding for parents, as well as others. Today, the mental association is no longer true, but you still might be worried about your child’s odd or strange behaviors such as stimming or creating imaginary friends.

There is a type of autism placed within a Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) diagnosis known as Multiplex Developmental Disorder (MCDD). This particular subset of autism is characterized by:

  • emotional instability
  • disordered thought and extreme false beliefs
  • hallucination: the inability to tell reality from make believe
  • paranoia: believing other people want to hurt them
  • feelings of extreme grandeur and elevated status, such as super powers

That is the standard qualification for a person to be labeled psychotic,[6] but psychosis isn’t generally found among autistic individuals. In fact, psychosis is actually very rare among autistics. What most people overlook is that an autistic child is still a child, and as such, their experiences, fascinations, and creative processes will overlap with typical children.

What Autism Looks Like: It's Not Psychosis!Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/44176993@N03/8622532514/

Just because an autistic individual does things differently, or tends to overreact when faced with stress, that doesn’t mean there’s something mentally wrong with them. Although the traditional view regarding autism is that these kids lack the imagination necessary to create, impersonate, and interact socially, that isn’t always true.

Savants, brainiacs, high-functioning autistic individuals, and even those placed lower on the spectrum are very creative. The idea that autistic people are not imaginative appears to be another myth. What they struggle with is imagination in a social context. They can create their own story lines just fine.

How Does Autism Differ From Psychosis?

Autistic children and teenagers who invent invisible friends to keep them company don’t necessarily fall into the category of MCDD. That’s because the greater majority of them continue to understand what is real, and what is not. Autistic individuals have problems with:

  • social impairments
  • narrow or obsessive interests
  • repetitive motions and routines
  • speech and language deficits
  • non-verbal communication problems
  • motor clumsiness

But as a general rule, they don’t have problems with psychosis or hallucination. In fact, many teens with Asperger’s Syndrome can tell you exactly how they created their friends. They know their friends are imaginary and not real. The criteria of psychosis includes the mind playing tricks on you.[7] That would fall into the category of hallucination: literally seeing the imaginary friend standing in front of you, physically hearing them speak to you, or being able to feel them hug you, rather than everything happening inside your mind or imaginary world.

It would also include the child or teen not knowing the difference between his or her own thoughts, and the thoughts of their invisible friend.[7] As the following video demonstrates, in a healthy imaginary environment, that doesn’t happen.

Imaginary Friends are NOT Psychosis

Thoughts Remain Separated

Imaginary Play vs. Patterning Friends after Television, Movie, or Book Characters

Some authorities believe that one of the signs and symptoms of being on the autism spectrum is the inability to imaginative play. So wouldn’t creating an invisible friend fit into that category? Well, not exactly. When I worked for one of Good Shepherd’s group homes in Southern California many years ago, we had a Down syndrome resident who had invented many invisible friends – but she didn’t make them up. She used characters she knew well from various television shows and movies.

Autistic individuals who hang out at forums that give them the opportunity to interact with each other, have expressed similar creative abilities. Several years ago, a few teens with Asperger’s talked openly about where they got their ideas for their characters from. Although their imaginative creations were indeed creative, they were not imaginative. They were re-creations of characters they could relate to on television, from movies, and in books. That enabled these autistic teenagers to create their own scripts.

However, the spectrum is extremely broad and blanket statements, such as an autistic child or individual cannot be imaginative or creative, ignores their individuality. What many are finding today is that imagination deficits are directly associated with a person’s social issues, rather than their individual capabilities when they are alone.

High Functioning Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Creativity

Temple Grandin: Many With Asperger's Syndrome are Extremely CreativeCredit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/35056665@N00/9132879250/

One of the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome is the ability to focus intensely for long periods – days, or even weeks at a time. This remarkable trait of persistence greatly enhances an Asperger’s ability to create.[3] While many people don’t associate autism with creativity, some individuals on the spectrum have a high capacity for visual thinking and use alternative strategies to compensate.

In the photo above, Temple Grandin (on the left) is a very good example of using creativity to solve life's problems. In addition to being the first person to come forward and explain what it was specifically like to be autistic, she was able to use the visual images inside her mind to raise the quality of life for the cows she worked with. By pretending she was the cow, she used her imagination to invent devices that lessened its anxiety and fears. 

Another example is a girl on one of the autism forums who couldn’t interact well with others her age. The crushing loneliness caused her to invent someone who could understand her. Someone she could talk to, and who would mentally hug her when she was having a meltdown. While her abilities to create were strong, she never lost site of the fact that her invisible companion wasn’t real. To her, the friend was a coping mechanism, similar to a child playing with dolls.

What concerned her was her age. Though common to hear about young children having invisible playmates, she was 18 and worried that her friend’s presence as she entered chronological adulthood meant she was becoming mentally unhealthy. Many teenagers with Asperger’s stepped up to assure her that they, too, had similar friends. Their attitude?

If the coping mechanism helps you in some way, and you’re not delusional, why would it be psychologically unhealthy?

Social Isolation Breeds Fantasy, Not Psychosis

In general, more boys are diagnosed with autism than girls are, but Michael Fitzgerald in his book Autism and Creativity doesn’t feel the unbalance comes from boys being more susceptible to autism. In his professional opinion, most girls tend to go undiagnosed, or misdiagnosed with other problems because they tend to be more sociable than boys, and can learn through observation.[8] That is why it’s extremely important not to group autistic kids into a single group of capabilities or non-capabilities.

While social isolation can ignite a boy’s inherent ability to create, that doesn’t mean he’s psychotic. In the following video, Geoffrey Putt, PsyD, the Director of Parenting and Family Support Services at Akron’s Children Hospitol explains many of the truths that lay at the heart of creating imaginary friends. It’s all about fantasy, not psychosis.

Truth About Imaginary Friends

Geoffrey Putt, PsyD Explains

The teenage girls on the autism forum I visited all struggled with social issues and used imaginary friends to cope with their loneliness. However, the reason these particular individuals decided to create a character to help them deal with the deficits in life isn’t absolute. Don’t assume that all imaginary friends are created for the same reason. It isn’t always about loneliness or even some type of distress. With two-thirds of all children participating in this type of fantasy, much of the time, it’s just about having fun.

How to Respond to Your Autistic Child’s Imaginary Playmates

Understanding your child’s need for imaginary friends and accepting their place in your child’s world is essential for their proper development, but that can be difficult if you never had an imaginary friend yourself. Try to look at these characters from a different perspective.

When I used to dabble in fiction writing, I quickly became aware of a very common phenonemenon. When a fiction writer invents the characters that will populate their book, story, play, or movie, many times the characters take on a life of their own. They literally write the story for the author. The same thing happens when you pick up a book or watch a movie and get so involved in the lives of the fictional characters that they almost become real for you. You know they aren’t physical people, but you have an insatiable need and drive to experience their lives vicariously right along with them.

Invisible friends work much the same way. They have taken on life within the mind of your child. They need to be acknowledged and accepted for what they are, but that doesn’t mean you have to encourage their existence. This is your child’s fantasy. They need to have the freedom to control that experience, and that includes the freedom to give them up when they are no longer necessary. For that reason, it’s a good idea to not bring up the topic of your child’s imaginary playmates. Wait and let your child bring up the subject first.

However, once the subject has been introduced into the conversation, relax and just have fun with it.[4] Don’t be like the mother in the above video that appeared to be frustrated and irritated by the friend’s presence. Enter the fantasy along with your child in the same way that Floortime encourages you to enter your child’s world. Be there, and play along, but also pay attention to the conversation that results.

Relax and Have Fun with Your Autistic ChildCredit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/17160935@N03/8441511898/

Invisible friends can help bring feelings to the surface that your autistic child doesn’t understand or doesn’t have the ability to express. Once inside the child’s fantasy, you can then ask questions about their imaginary friend. The answers will give you strong clues to your child’s hidden interests, wishes, fears, anxieties, and goals that they aren’t able to tell you about. They’ll even clue you in to their unique perceptive of the world.

Benefits of Having Imaginary Friends

Imaginary friends provide comfort during those trying times when the child is under severe stress. They provide companionship when lonely and give children someone to blame or boss around when they are feeling helpless and vulnerable.[2] In a very real way, they help your child make sense of what’s going on. Try to look at the whole experience as a healthy sign that your child is entering into the world of their imagination.