Study shows evidence of social benefits for autistic children with imaginary friends

A new study from York St John University has shown for the first time that parents of autistic children with imaginary friends report that their children are better able to understand others’ minds and have stronger social skills than those autistic children with no imaginary friend.


Dr Paige Davis. Image Credit: York St John University

Senior Lecturer in Psychology Dr Paige Davis led the study: Autistic children who create imaginary companions: Evidence of social benefits which has published in the major, peer-reviewed, international journal Autism.

Dr Davis specialises in research on imaginary companions (ICs). In 2018 she led a project which found that autistic children do create imaginary friends even though it had been widely assumed that they would not be able to.

Research on neurotypical children has found that those with imaginary friends have more developed ability to think about how others’ minds work and score higher on social skills tasks.

This new study shows for the first time that imaginary friends also bring these ‘real world’ social benefits for autistic children. Those with ICs are better able to understand others’ minds and have stronger social skills than those autistic children with no imaginary friend. This is regardless of their reported language ability. 

Parents of 124 (38 female) autistic children, ages from 5 to –12 years old, completed questionnaires evaluating communication, social understanding, and social skills.

Examples of imaginary companions (ICs) reported in Dr Davis’ work:

  • Ghosty Bubble: an invisible bubble person who was fun to talk to and slept on a bubble bed next to the child. When the child wanted to be alone he could be popped
  • Pretend Ada: An invisible version of a child’s school friend who plays with the child when she needs a friend
  • Mikey: An invisible ninja who lives in the sewer and is played with daily and read to by the child
  • Andrew: An invisible boy who drives a rainbow-coloured Lincoln and sleeps on a bunk bed

This study provides further evidence that parents shouldn’t be worried about their children having imaginary friends. The companions could be helping autistic children to practise their social skills, potentially resulting in benefits that will help them to socialise in the real world.

With respect to the creation of imaginary friends and their potential benefits, the play profiles of autistic children are similar to the general population. The study 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.”

Dr Paige Davis, Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Some other points to note in the research:

  • Almost half of the parents taking this survey about their autistic child reported their child having an imaginary friend
  • Provides evidence that understanding of others’ minds is not all or nothing in autism. There are varying degrees

Gives researchers reason to investigate whether the causes of these differences between autistic children with and without imaginary companions are the same or different than neurotypical children. 

Source:

Journal reference:

Davis, P.E., et al. (2022) Autistic children who create imaginary companions: Evidence of social benefits. Autism. doi.org/10.1177/13623613221092195.