Autistic children with imaginary friends have better social skills
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. 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, reported function 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. The team found that autistic children with imaginary friends scored higher than those without imaginary friends on both social measures. 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. 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. These include whether autistic children have different kinds of imaginary friend and how this may relate to social skills, as well as how children's imaginary friend behaviour is affected by being in an autism-specific environment, something which has been shown to decrease feelings of social isolation.