Fantasy and the Autistic Mind

If you have raised an autistic child, then this article will not surprise you. But for those who have not, what I am going to reveal here may shock you.

Could it be possible that autistic children are more “normal” than most children, socially? And could their desire to pursue special interests and find intense pleasure in more personal and private worlds reflect the fact that the actual stunted social world of “neurotypical children” fails to live up to their own more advanced interpersonal and social needs?

I am a parent and primary custodian of a child (my 9 year old son) who has high-functioning autism. And living with me and being so close to him through the years, I have seen with my own eyes the incredible depth of feeling, the love, and the loyal connection he has to myself and his friends.I do not want to go into the history of autism, here. There are plenty of resources on the Internet for that. But I did want to share with you that from my very personal experience raising my son, I have begun to notice that what the literature and assumptions of the public say about autism is not true at all. In fact, I have discovered quite the opposite of what some view as social deficits in these children.

Without going into detailed history, I will say simply that my son, being high-functioning, made it extremely difficult to identify his situation years ago. He is 9 years old now. But when he was 2 years old, other than a communication problem, he appeared very much a loving, interactive, if very intense toddler. There were signs quite clearly of his communication issues. But to his mother and I, very little cues as to signs of autism, as they relate to social interaction, repetition, etc. In fact, as time has gone on, his intense connection and love of people has grown and at times even overshadowed his communication issues. His sometimes high energy and active state blurs some of the issues related to his ASD. But overall, all the things many attribute to autism, more specifically, the concept of a “social disconnect” we have never seen, and still do not see. We do see that his hyperactivity, and his poor language and speech delays have forced Simon to both avoid verbal communication and some interaction over time. Imagine if you were high energy, with ADHD, and could barely speak? How would you, as a child try and compensate for that? How would you interact with the world, assuming you were possibly “normal” inside with normal values and views of people and those you loved?

Overtime, I have begun to observe in my son, a very strong passion for things. Some of this he got from myself, as I am also a very passionate and sometimes obsessed person. But with my son, I have noticed two things: His love of social interaction and desire to be with people has increased over time, while his frustration and failures due to poor communication has forced him into a more private and imaginary fantasy life, over time. What does this mean? And how does this relate to fantasy and autism children being normal?

It turns out the fantasy life of autism children can reveal quite a bit more than you can imagine. In fact, I would even say, that watching my son’s involvement with his own private world, over time, has convinced me that we quite possibly have grossly misunderstood autism.

Raising my son alone with very little help from family has also allowed me to see every tiny nuances and symptoms of autism in a whole new light. I have noticed a depth of emotion and love that I have never experienced from any other human being through  my son. I have also noticed that over time, he has intentionally desired and sought deep love and affection and all the social things that we take for granted as so-called nuerotypicals. Yet, because of his communication and the coldness of the world, my son has been “forced” to at times turn away from communication and finally interaction with his peers at times. In fact, when allowed to, my son has been the most empathetic and engaged child in his class at school. At 2nd grade he got the citizenship award for most loving and popular kid in the class! how could that be??? An autistic child popular, making friends, and admired?????

Something then at 6 years of age changed, as I started to see my son actually defending his friends against bullies. This to me speaks of a child, not disliking social interaction and avoiding people, but instead desiring more social interaction and friendship…..the opposite of what we think we know of as autism. In fact, I found out from his teachers one year, that when a boy came in with a cast for a broken arm, he alone of all the children went up to him and cried and asked him what happened and how he could help.

That does not sound like autism to me….

My son, has over time, and at home, turned away from his love of people and friends to his private world…..a world of movies and drawing characters and videos on YouTube. How could such a socially advanced and compassionate child be so insular and guarded. In truth, I have discovered the real reason these kids turn away and delve into their private fantasy worlds. It is in fact, because of their poor communication skills, not their lack of social skills or desire for social connections. My son, I would wager, is more social than most boys his age and therefore more “normal” than most kids. And I can prove that. There are many boys I have met that will play video games for hours and hours. But my son gets bored with games, and even will offer to invite you to play for him. How can that be? In his free time, instead, he explores his private world through his drawings and the social interactions he desires but cannot find in the real world.

But what does he draw? Not strange and unusual things, but really characters that are friends and who travel together on adventures and interact with each other on what I call an “advanced social level”. I have listened to his imaginary play, and it is about the social world he wishes he had. His fantasy world in fact is a reflection not just of the broken social world of his communication and speech issues, but really of a super-advanced world where everyone is intimately related, everyone is your friend, and the engagement and love between characters is enhanced and on a very high and interactive level.
This has convinced me that my son’s autism is not social at all……in fact it is the opposite. His fantasy world and the use of cartoons is a “replacement” for the social world he cannot get because of both his poor communication, and the fact that the world is not that social. Think about that…if you really truly are around other people, how often do you accommodate that world but in reality, how often have you wished for more? How often have you wanted to shout “I LOVE YOU” to someone close to you in public, or hug your friends, but hold back, or want to talk for hours with family about all sorts of things but know it is not appropriate.

Society dictates what is normal, not what is normal for you. In fact, that is part of learning to be an adult; to play the game of life where you repress your heart and you accommodate the bigger picture of groupthink. You have to. When you are young you can get away with more. But over time you desire to fit in and so you play the game of life and learn to reject others and guard against rejection. But the heart never stops desiring, does it?
What I see quite clearly now, with autistic children is they actually have a hyper-sensitive and enhanced desire for social interaction. Their feelings for love are greater. Their love of people and even understanding of social cues at times is better. They quite possibly are more normal than kids who are taught to repress their true selves or who truly are not engaged in others as you might think. Because autistic children have the desire and yet their communication deficit gets in the way they are forced to retreat many times during the day and there their fantasy world takes over and they experience the full force of their social interactions without communication getting in the way.

Could it be that science and psychiatrists have got this all wrong? Could it be that many autistic children are really minds buried under layers of broken communication and futile hope? If we could fix the communication pathways the social and other stuff would shine through? The acceptance recognition of the limited love in the real world could be discussed and resolved with these kids.

I am now willing to believe that is the case, seeing what my son experiences and has said to me. I am also willing to believe my son is more normal socially than other kids, and that he feels love and anger and compassion and friendship and loyalty on a much more intense level than normal kids. I have seen this with my own two eyes. Where one boy may say hi and walk past you my son will run to you and give you a hug and ask you a question, or if you are hurting how he can heal you. That is super-social interaction on a heightened level.
In truth, I have met other autistic children who seem to have more humanity and more depth of emotion, compassion, and empathy than most people. This is not based on scientific studies, but personal experience. In addition, autistic children have a much richer inner life, and emotional life, than most kids. But this is not easily measured, seen, or experienced. This leads to the observation, that they also have a much richer fantasy life, and therefore a much deeper imaginary life than so-called normal kids, or adults. This discovery has led me to the conclusion that our whole concept of what is normal and what is good in people is quite possibly grossly misunderstood.

But why do they turn to their fantasy and imaginary worlds? And why is it so enhanced? Watching my son create his drawings and watch how he interacts with movies, he is clearly seeking an enhanced social interaction. He is not interested in the robots or colors or shapes or anything. He is interested in the people…..the characters, and any type of interaction between people or characters is stimulating to him. He feel like he is playing every role! This tells me his acuity and engagement with the social connections is very advanced. In truth most normal children very likely don’t care about those things. Most normal boys want to see bugs squashed or boys fight or guns go off or people wreck cars or sports events. But my son is interested in the dialogue. Why? Because he loves people. He loves social interaction. Could it be that autistic kids turn to fantasy and special interests to make up for the social interaction they crave but cannot have because of language? I think now that is clearly the case.

Fantasy then, for autistic children, is a reflection not of their narrow interests and scattered minds, but of a desire to socialize. It is in almost all cases a replacement, as well, for a world that really is not that social. Could it be we are all like that to a degree? Don’t we all get pleasure from watching hours and hours of Netflix dramas and cable shows with people interacting? Is that because we cannot live those lives, we must seek them on screen? In that way, I’m now convinced autistic children are advanced socially. They perceive social cues on an advanced level. they simply cannot participate as well because they have a broken communication system. Add hyperactivity and they cannot focus. And as well, if they react to simple things with great forceful displays of emotion, like my child can do (when he sees Santa in a parade, for example) it shows me he is not fulfilled by his social environment. The real world is not good enough socially for him. And that is the sad truth.

I also have seen the imaginary realms his mind explores, day to day, to compensate for the world as it is, and its lack of social considerations. In his world, intense love and friendships unfold. And great drama unfolds before his eyes. He builds rich dialogs between his characters. This reminds me of one of the reasons I am writing the Phantammeron… is like my son, an exploration of a much more intensely loving, emotional, interactive world than my own. In that sense, are all fiction writers in a way trying to create a world where not just life, but their secret desires for love and attention and affection are realized?

That is certainly true for women and romance novels. Why can we not imagine a socially advanced autistic child seeking escape in his fantasy world because he loves people and his friends, but wants even more. He cannot find it so he invents it!

You cannot be close to a child who is autistic and not see the beauty in these children and this very strange and vibrant aspect of their lives. Right away you see the connection and love they feel for you. How can that be connected with a child that someone says is insular, closed, and avoids human contact? You don’t really begin to understand the love they have for others until you see the numbers of friends they begin to have over time. It has been seen or observed by everyone, that autistic children and adults seem distant or “in their own world” at times. But this is in fact an illusion, simply because so many of these kids cannot communicate their desires and love. In fact, it can be shown, that some young adults with severe autism, when given a computer or word processor for the first time, suddenly write the most beautiful expressions of their thoughts and feelings. Why is it technology brings that love out?

Kids that are very visual, like my son, who are fascinated by relationships and people through not just school activities, but movies, videos, and media, dont know how to use words, but they can through visual things. That is why I see my son using his thousands of drawings and characters and movies to express his social needs. The irony is that these kids actually spend huge amounts of time exploring the relationships of others through their art writing, music, and movies, while the rest of us take our relationships, quite often, for granted. In that sense, they are really more normal and more human than we are. A child that spends time hating others, competing for love or power or money, battling in sports, or fighting at school is not social. Those are very anti-social events.

A gentle and kind autistic child that wins citizenship awards and easily makes friends and risks love and rejection at school and who cares for the safety of others or cries himself when another child cries then comforts them as my son has is not autistic, but really “extra-social” and extra-compassionate.

An example of my own sons compassion in the real world was shown to me many times as I was watching him defend his best friends against bullies on the playground. He even stands up to adults if he sees his friends hurt. He is about loving someone so much that he desires to protect them. Yet, he is never a bully. That is about as human and social as a person can get in this world of ours. If autistic children are socially behind, how is it that they feel such depths of loyalty, friendship, and love that they stand up for their friends and show such bravery? How many of us know of people that have fought like that for us in public? Very few. Sad but true.

If in fact autistic people feel the same depth of connection to others, or even more connection than we do, then what could be causing them to be perceived as being so different, at times? What does it mean to be socially normal? And how does all this fit into fantasy and the subject of this article?
What I have discovered is that autism really is just a “communication wall” between a very sensitive, loving child who relishes exchanges with people, and those he/she loves. In fact, if this communication block did not exist these children likely would be not only admired and loved by many, but the depth and power of their minds and personalities would be used to spread love and kindness way beyond the “norm” that we now experience in society as a whole. Autistic loving children would create the new norm.

This has led me to the realization, seeing my sensitive son, that in fact he feels love and emotion much stronger than his peers and so affects them and changes them to his view of the world. But his communication circuits have stopped short of being able to allow him to communicate that connection. So he has been forced at times to turn to fantasy and become an inward facing child, at times. Because he is so excited when playing with friends, and loves them so much, yet struggles to say words that make sense, he eventually feels some rejection and disappointment and retreats. That is the tragedy of autism. It is not a social breakdown but a communication breakdown.

In addition, it turns out, when a mind cannot connect with the things it desires, it turns inward and seeks to fulfill those desires internally. This is where the world of music, art, and fantasy seem to play such a strong part in the life of autistic people and all artistic people. I have seen this with my own two eyes with my son, and to a degree, with myself. All of us have, in fact, in times when our desires have been diminished by the outside world, have in fact turned to many internal outlets to fulfill that desire……through movies, media, music, books, etc. In my son’s case, he has reached out and succeeded in making numerous friends. But he has sought so much more……his heart needs to love people more than the world can accept!

This has been an eye-opening realization, and why I see now autistic kids are more normal than the rest of us on this planet.

My son’s emotions have been so powerful and strong, and his expressions of love and hurt so profound, I have seen him cry when that love was felt, or given, or rejected. And in time, I have seen his desire to explore the realm of relationships between people through movies and videos and media. He in turn, has then built up hugely, complex dramas and drawings of characters who have very complex interrelationships that go WAY beyond what a typical 9 year old might experience on the playground. In fact, I have seen his imaginary families of people and characters relate to each other in very complex and deeply profound ways that most normal people rarely experience. Where a typical child might laugh at Toy Story and the friendship between Woody and Buzz, my son has taken these two characters and developed a much more complex and rich dialogue and drama between them.

Seeing this, and that possibly my son has sought more meaningful and yet possibly unfulfilled relationships with his peers, it has flipped the table on autism for me. It has made me wonder if doctors and psychologists have completely missed the true nature of autism. Seeing my sons own tears of joy feeling love, and his passionate hugs and kisses and gentleness, which goes way beyond what a typical child would give a parent, has made me realize that the ONLY thing standing between these children and society is a broken society that must use hate and hierarchy and power to control and reject others socially. That is a huge revelation for me, and has changed my views of the world.

But it has also made me think about how we have isolated these kids because of communication, assuming they do not feel love and friendships more passionately and intimately than we thought. In my own family, where so many have pretended to understand my son, they have made the assumption that because he cannot communicate well and seemed to turn inward into his inner world over time, he doesnt care about people as normal children, or was only interested in his art or stories, or over-exposed to too much television, etc. This could not be farther from reality. His mother and I have always known him to be a lover of other children….quite the opposite. And his passion for desiring social interaction continues. It is only his communication that has allowed the misinformed to assume he didn’t desire social interaction. When he has turned to his movies, toys, and drawings to relive this need, he in fact was not being “antisocial” or addicted to movies, he was actually fulfilling his extra-need to build up his own advanced social interactions, many of which dont exist in the real world for any of us. In fact he has done more than they themselves desire as far as social interactions. Being rejected by his communication deficits, and  forced to explore those social interactions via media, he not only fulfills those desires now completely but actually is showing us all in the family what a more advanced social world might look like if we cared about each other more as human beings and knew love on the same level that special needs kids know love.

That has me now ask the question: What is normal? What is the value in a normal vs. autistic mind? If autistic children feel the same social connections but have broken communication and cannot express them, what does that say about normal kids? Maybe they desire less social interaction after all? And the intense imaginary world of autistic children may actually be a hyper-social and high fantasy reality much “better” and more intense than our own, simply because autistic children have such a high level of social interaction and desire to share love. It is just unfulfilled. This means the act of fantasy writing and art is quite possibly not just a reflection of a desire to create fantasy worlds, but really a desire to fulfill ourselves and our need to share love with others in a world that that does not allow us to fully fulfill that desire.

I have learned so much from my beautiful loving son. I hope most of you will too and kick down the barriers of ignorance perpetuated by the media, your own family, and outsiders who have tried to use autism as means to feel good about their own failures. In fact autism could teach us that being normal is not so normal.

– The Author

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