Cat Ears and Tiger Bites – Imagination

I had safely secured both my children into their buggy and the snacks were packed. We headed into our beautiful local town. It was a decent three-kilometre walk from our house and the children and I generally chatted, recited well-known storybooks and played games such as I Spy or anything else we could conjure up. On this trip, I had received several unusual looks from people passing by on our walk. I shrugged this uneasy feeling off and carried on. We had several errands to complete while we were in town and of course, we never missed a chance to stop at our local pet shop to play too. We must have been away from home for about three hours.

My son had fallen asleep in the buggy and continued his nap on the front porch. My daughter rushed back into the game we were playing just before we had left which was dress-ups. I ducked into the bathroom to wash my hands about to prepare lunch and looked at my reflection in the mirror. What I thought had been my sunglasses perched on top of my head turned out to be a headband. I had completed the entire three hour round trip wearing a set of cat ears from our earlier playtime thinking that they were my sunglasses. I was mortified now realising the persistent weird glances I had received during the outing. The damage was done and as I was already partly dressed as a cat, so my daughter and I continued to play while I made lunch. Yet another, (Oh) Dear Diary moment.

Playing dress-ups and role-playing are great bridges for developing a child’s imagination skills. One of the perceived challenges observed for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is impaired imaginative play. The earlier characteristic of autism such as those outlined by Wing and Gould, (1979) proposed that children with ASD had significant impairments in imagination, along with socialisation and communication deficits. Impairment in sharing imagination/imaginative play has therefore been one of the longstanding identified diagnostic and persistent criteria elements when diagnosing ASD.

However, it is not apparent what exactly what this impairment includes. Vocations such as those in the area of engineering, science, art, writing and poetry, music and many more, indicate that many successful people with ASD in these roles have significant imaginations and talent required for their successful outcomes.  My son has a fantastic imagination. I can’t remember a time when he hasn’t, although initially I described him as being ‘in his own world’ and that he could over-imagine situations. I remember a day vividly when he and another little girl were playing together. The girl was being a lion and my son was being a tiger. He was so into being the character of the tiger that he physically bit his play friend.  This understandably caused a huge commotion, outrage and required disciplinary action. My son hadn’t realised that he wasn’t meant to bite the lion even though tigers sometimes do.

I have worked with other students who have difficulty with over-functioning imaginations too such as eating worms when they are pretending to be birds or jumping off tall trees when they are pretending to be a plane. Their imagination can be extremely vivid and with that, it can be dangerous.

So whether your child has an outstandingly unique and vivid imagination or whether they find this an area needing support to bring them out of themselves, here are some tips on imagination:

  • Be your child’s playmate. Use objects such as using a banana as a phone or a book as a hat to being with. Branch out and follow their lead you have no idea where the game may take you.
  • Social stories  – Use social stories if there are specific issues such as too much aggression in their play.
  • Boundaries – Have clear boundaries for what is appropriate and not appropriate and discuss potential safety issues.
  • Share the Experience – Where possible try to share in the experience with your child. This may be by talking with them about their imagined experience or joining in at times.
  • Outside/in nature – This can inspire a child to develop their imagination skills by thinking, questioning and exploring. Nature is full of wonder for us all.
  • Art – Free drawing, painting, building crafts can all help the development of creative skills.
  • Books – Reading and predicting outcomes and alternative endings/plots is a great way to support imaginative play too. If literacy is challenging then starting with a simple picture book and comics is a great way to start this. 
  • Music – Sing songs such as, Old Macdonald is a basic level imagination game where imagining the next animal in the song can start to bridge and get the child’s imagination working.
  • Role-play – Dress ups and playing out activities such as shops, dinosaur museum, doctors etc. can also help to develop this and create language and boundaries around what is acceptable or not.

Imagination can open up the world for children and is how they learn. It can be easy for children to not develop their imagination or to get carried away and engrossed in alternative worlds. Children with autism need extra support in this area. I love that my son now includes me in his imaginary play. We’ve worked at this. The different worlds and concepts that he has constructed continue to blow my mind. Reluctantly bringing him back to what is real can be challenging at times and is just as important as allowing his imagination to flourish. It’s a fine balance.   


Wing L, Gould J.(1979). Severe impairments of social interaction and associated abnormalities in children: Epidemiology and classification. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 1979;9(1):11–29. doi: 10.1007/BF01531288. [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]

Published by "Expert"-Parenting Beautiful Minds

I'm a Speech Language Therapist with over a decade of specialist experience working with kids who have been diagnosed with autism, their families & educators. It has been an even bigger emotional, physical and mental roller-coaster of a wonderful journey during the current raising of my son and daughter - one with a diagnosis of autism and one without. Like all children, they are unique, both special, both with demands and needs and their own likes, dislikes, relationships and potential. It is a huge privilege and joy to be able to have a part in helping to mould them into who they are destined to be. This Blog aims to share my professional skills and knowledge with from a consumer's perspective to share guidance, common sense, support and strategies. You will gain some hope, possibly some tears but I aim to keep this from a honest and laughter-filled stance. Keep me in the loop as to how I am doing. Sam

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