19 May


by Lirio S Covey, Ph.D.

Imaginary friends (also known as pretend friends or invisible friends) are a psychological and social phenomenon where a friendship or other interpersonal relationship takes place in the imagination rather than external physical reality”. (1)

Many parents notice that their child may talk of an imaginary friend, with whom the child may engage in vivid interactions consisting of play and sharing of stories.

Imaginary friends are not signs of trouble. In fact, they are often practice opportunities for learning how to engage in a range of social activities, or seek as a source of comfort when feeling fearful or sad, even if “pretend”, yet realizing the "friend" is not real.

Having an imaginary friend, however, is thought not to be accessible to children with autism, which would be consistent with a deficit in social skills and emotional understanding, considered a core characteristic of autism.

A recent research study examined whether this assumption is always the case. (2) Parents of 111 children between 24 and 96 months old were asked if they had observed their children engage in imaginary friendships and play. The parents’ responses were compared to parents of children without autism who were seen in a separate study and asked the same question.

The research showed that, although fewer than among children without autism, a subset of children with autism were able to spontaneously create imaginary friends. Further having imaginary friends was observed to begin later than in the children without autism. The lack of comparability in parent samples and methods that limit the exploratory study render the observed results requiring of further study.

Comment: Having imaginary friends would seem consistent with the remarkable creativity in art and music demonstrated by some children with autism. The study finding, if confirmed, suggests the possibility that helping children with autism engage in imaginary friends may improve social skills and alleviate social difficulties characteristic of the autism condition.


(1) Taylor, M. Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

(2) Davis, PE, Simon H, Meins E, Robins, DL. Imaginary Companions in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism and Developmental Disorders, on line March 21, 2018.

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