Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Autistic Spectrum: Problems With Imagination

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 22, 2012

Carson, a thirteen year old boy, I have known since he was six, has always “suffered from a lack of imagination,” I said to his mom. When he was in latency, his play consisted of banging toys together, without creating a narrative. His play was limited to being aggressive with his toys, without the ability to create stories around his aggression. Now, at thirteen, he reads voraciously, but only about the guns used during the Civil War. The narrowness of his interests are startling. He prefers to be alone, with very little interest in friends or family. The persistence of his restricted interests suggests that his brain only fires up with a minimal slate of activities. His mom, Kerrie, agrees and understands. She always has. It is not that Carson does not enjoy his life. It is that he is an outlier, a child who does not fall in the bell-shaped curve in terms of his leisure activities. Imagination, like every other skill, falls into a spectrum. As with all spectrums there are people in the extremes. Understanding is the first step. Kerrie models this step for so many parents. She intervenes and helps Carson, while at the same time, accepting his limitations. I admire her.

3 Responses to “The Autistic Spectrum: Problems With Imagination”

  1. Jon said

    Carson is an interesting example of someone in an extreme case. First, I have a quibble about your phrasing, and then a question about your implied discussion of neurophysiology.

    My quibble is about “a child who does not fall in the bell-shaped curve.” Indeed he may fall in the curve of a “Gaussian Distribution” (the technical name for what has popularly become called the bell-shaped curve), but at a far extreme – many standard deviations beyond the mean of that distribution.

    My question about neurophysiology is about your phase “his brain only fires up with a minimal slate of activities.” I can see the analogy to modern digital computers is most apropos in this case; however, is that the way a human brain really works?

    • Hi Jon,
      Your quibble is helpful. You are absolutely right. Carson falls many standard deviations beyond the mean of the Gaussian distribution. Forgive my inaccuracy and thank you for the correction.
      Yes, our brains have a pleasure center which is different for every person. Certain areas of the brain light up more than others when presented with the same stimulus. The “lighting up” means that there is activation of the neurons. Carson appears to have a very limited pleasure center. Yes, this is hand-waving, but it is based on our understanding of brain function which we gathered from looking at functional MRI imaging. The future is very exciting in that we will understand brain functioning more specifically, since right now our knowledge is very primitive. Thanks again.

  2. Shelly said

    My understanding of kids with autism is that their internal worlds are really quite rich yet the expression of their worlds to us neurotypicals is limited. It is not that Carson’s interests are limited because in his brain, he takes the guns of the Civil War to places that you and I can never even imagine. In latency, his play consisted of banging toys together without an external narrative, but with a rich internal one. Another point I have with your diagram in the blog is that I thought high-functioning autism and Asperger’s is one and the same. Why is it separated?

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