A note on role play and pretending

Little Miss M has always loved imaginary play and going on elaborate adventures in her imaginary world. “You be this and I’ll be that” she’ll say multiple times a day and she’s always the director, telling us exactly what our roles are and how we should play them. She also imitates people and characters, really becoming them. This can also extend to animals.

It started when she was very young with books. She’d immerse herself into the stories and always wanted to act them out again and again. Then came the usual role play young children love as they make sense of the world and pretending to be favourite characters. It became increasingly harder to finish her imaginary games though or go anywhere or do anything without role playing as characters.

As she got older the intensity of this type of play only grew and we were finding more and more of her time was spent in fantasy land and this is where she seemed most comfortable.

Her imagination threw us off the scent of autism initially because we thought it wasn’t typical for a child with autism to be so imaginative in their play. When we read that one of the defining features of PDA is comfortable (sometimes to an extreme extent) in role play and pretending we knew we were on the right track.

Little Miss M once said that pretending to be a character is easier than being herself because she knows what to do as the character and what will happen. We realised that all of the situations she imagines/pretends to be in are all copied from things she’s seen others do (in films, TV programs, YouTube videos, computer games and books). The things she pretends to do change as she sees different things which she connects with but the ideas and scripts are all borrowed from what she’s seen and it’s so important that the imaginary situations are all familiar to her and within her control.

We’ve come to see role play and pretending to be in an imaginary world as natural coping instincts for certain things she finds difficult.

Escaping into fantasy by choosing to be a certain character or role playing a scenario when she feels a loss of control or when in an unfamiliar place or situation gives her the feeling of control back because she has more control of her imaginary world than she does the real world and it feels safer. Being someone else also removes her from the thing she finds difficult to do because it’s not her doing it.

Role playing/imitating what she has seen is more comfortable than not knowing what to do as herself, which is actually quite confusing for her in some situations due to difficulties with social imagination, as is knowing what others will say or do or what might happen next, so assigning roles to people and ‘directing the scene’ is a way to know what others will do and what will happen and have a sense of control.

Pretending is also effective in demand avoidance as a way to excuse herself from demands or as a delay tactic. And on the flip side of this, we’ve also found that turning a necessary demand into an imaginary game makes it much easier for her to do and using role play to introduce or explain something to her is effective.

Not all of her imaginary play is her way of coping with difficulties, sometimes she just wants to play a make-believe game because she loves that type of play but if she cannot play it or others won’t play along to her specific directions, she will become anxious from the loss of control which can display as anger, annoyance or becoming tearful and upset. This can make being around others who don’t want to play along with her specific ideas quite difficult to manage. It can also be difficult as an adult joining in with her imaginary ideas and games exactly as she wants us to but we know that doing so will help keep her anxiety levels low which in turn enables her to cope with more.

When I initially realised that she used role-play and fantasy to feel safe and in control and I recognised it was often a sign of her not feeling comfortable in real life situations, I felt sad that she had to do it to cope but now I see it as a really positive thing. It enables her to cope with difficulties and situations which would otherwise cause panic and that can only be a good thing and as it gives her a sense of control, she is more able to dip in and out of situations and enjoy more elements of them in her own unique way.

After writing this I asked Little Miss M if she wanted to add anything and she said:
“My imagination helps me survive because my imagination is my life”.