Here we examine imaginative drawing abilities in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and learning disabilities (LD) under several conditions: spontaneous production, with use of a template, and combining two real entities to form an ‘unreal’ entity. Sixteen children in each group, matched on mental and chronological age, were asked to draw a number of ‘impossible’ pictures of humans and dogs. Children with ASD were impaired in spontaneous drawings and included fewer impossible features than children with LD, but there was no difference when a template was provided. An autism-specific deficit was revealed in the task involving combining entities. Results suggest that children with ASD do not have a general imaginative deficit; impairment is instead related to planning demands.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
A number of the drawings produced by one child could not be interpreted as it was unclear what each feature included in the picture had intended to represent. Therefore, only the drawings for the spontaneous human, real human and human–dog were analyzed for this participant. In addition, one child with ASD was unwilling to complete any spontaneous drawing, but he was willing to complete the template drawings, which were included in the analysis.
Allen, M. L., & Chambers, A. (2011). Implicit and explicit understanding of ambiguous figures by adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 15(3), 1–16.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Bodfish, J. W., Symons, F. J., Parker, D. E., & Lewis, M. H. (2000). Varieties of repetitive behavior in autism: Comparisons to mental retardation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30(3), 237–243.
Booth, R., Charlton, R., Hughes, C., & Happé, F. (2003). Disentangling weak coherence and executive dysfunction: Planning drawing in autism and attention–deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 358(1430), 387–392.
Boucher, J. (2007). Memory and generativity in very high functioning autism: A firsthand account, and an interpretation. Autism, 11(3), 255–264.
Burack, J. A., Iarocci, G., Flanagan, T. D., & Bowler, D. M. (2004). On mosaics and melting pots: Conceptual considerations of comparisons and matching strategies. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34(1), 65–73.
Callaghan, T. C. (2000). Factors affecting children’s graphic symbol use in the third year: Language, similarity, and iconicity. Cognitive Development, 15(2), 185–214.
Charman, T., & Baron-Cohen, S. (1993). Drawing development in autism: The intellectual to visual realism shift. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 11(2), 171–185.
Cox, M. (2005). The pictorial world of the child. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Craig, J., Baron-Cohen, S., & Scott, F. (2001). Drawing ability in autism: A window into the imagination. Israel Journal of Psychiatry, 38(3–4), 242–253.
Dunn, L. M., Dunn, D. M., Whetton, C., & Burley, J. (1997). The British picture vocabulary scale (2nd ed.). Windsor: NFER-Nelson.
Eames, K., & Cox, M. V. (1994). Visual realism in the drawings of autistic, Down’s syndrome and normal children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 12(2), 235–239.
Fabbri-Destro, M., Cattaneo, L., Boria, S., & Rizzolatti, G. (2009). Planning actions in autism. Experimental Brain Research, 192(3), 521–525.
Fein, D., Lucci, D., & Waterhouse, L. (1990). Brief report: Fragmented drawings in autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 20(2), 263–269.
Folstein, S. E., & Rosen-Sheidley, B. (2001). Genetics of austim: Complex aetiology for a heterogeneous disorder. Nature Reviews Genetics, 2(12), 943–955.
Freeman, N. H. (1980). Strategies of representation in young children: Analysis of spatial skills and drawing processes (pp. 15–30). London: Academic Press.
Harris, P. L. (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hill, E. (2004). Executive dysfunction in autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(1), 26–32.
Hughes, C. (1996). Brief report: Planning problems in autism at the level of motor control. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 26(1), 99–107.
Jarrold, C. (2003). A review of research into pretend play in autism. Autism, 7(4), 379–390.
Jarrold, C., Boucher, J., & Smith, P. K. (1996). Generativity deficits in pretend play in autism. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 14(3), 275–300.
Jose, P. E. (2003). MedGraph-I: A programme to graphically depict mediation among three variables: The internet version, version 3.0. Victoria Univesity of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved 17 July 2015 http://pavlov.psyc.vuw.ac.nz/paul-jose/medgraph/.
Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1990). Constraints on representational change: Evidence from children’s drawing. Cognition, 34(1), 57–83.
Lee, A., & Hobson, R. P. (2006). Drawing self and others: How do children with autism differ from those with learning difficulties? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24(3), 547–565.
Leevers, H. J., & Harris, P. L. (1998). Drawing impossible entities: A measure of the imagination in children with autism, children with learning disabilities, and normal 4-year-olds. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39(3), 399–410.
Leslie, A. M. (1987). Pretense and representation: The origins of “theory of mind”. Psychological Review, 94(4), 412.
Lord, C., Rutter, M., DiLavore, P. C., & Risi, S. (2002). Autism diagnostic observation schedule (WPS ed.). Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.
Lord, C., Rutter, M., & Le Couteur, A. (1994). Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised: A revised version of a diagnostic interview for caregivers of individuals with possible pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24(5), 659–685.
Low, J., Goddard, E., & Melser, J. (2009). Generativity and imagination in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from individual differences in children’s impossible entity drawings. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27(2), 425–444.
Mottron, L., Belleville, S., & Ménard, E. (1999). Local bias in autistic subjects as evidenced by graphic tasks: Perceptual hierarchization or working memory deficit? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40(5), 743–755.
Nakagawa, S. (2004). A farewell to Bonferroni: the problems of low statistical power and publication bias. Behavioral Ecology, 15(6), 1044–1045.
Ozonoff, S., Pennington, B. F., & Rogers, S. J. (1991). Executive function deficits in high-functioning autistic individuals: relationship to theory of mind. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 32(7), 1081–1105.
Perneger, T. V. (1998). What’s wrong with Bonferroni adjustments. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 316(7139), 1236.
Rothman, K. J. (1990). No adjustments are needed for multiple comparisons. Epidemiology, 1(1), 43–46.
Rutter, M., Bailey, A., & Lord, C. (2003). SCQ: Social communication questionnaire. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.
Scott, F. J., & Baron-Cohen, S. (1996). Imagining real and unreal things: Evidence of a dissociation in autism. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 8(4), 371–382.
Wing, L., & Gould, J. (1979). Severe impairments of social interaction and associated abnormalities in children: Epidemiology and classification. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 9(1), 11–29.
Wolfberg, P. J. (2009). Play and imagination in children with autism. Lenexa: AAPC Publishing.
The authors wish to thank the specialist school who kindly allowed the study to take place within their setting, and to the parents and children who participated in this research.
MA participated in the design of the study, performed statistical analysis, interpreted data and drafted the manuscript; EC participated in the design of the study, collected data, contributed to statistical analysis and interpretation of the data.
Appendix 1: Coding Schemes
Spontaneous ‘Impossible’ Drawings
Based upon Scott and Baron-Cohen (1996), a child’s picture was scored as ‘impossible’ if body parts of the human or dog were misshapen, positioned in an incorrect place, incorrectly orientated, alien features were added or features usually present were omitted. A picture was defined as unsuccessful if none of the above ‘impossible’ features were detected and all features were correctly shaped, correctly positioned, correctly orientated, no alien features or elements were added, and if no elements that appeared on the ‘real’ drawing of the same creature were omitted.
The proportion of ‘impossible’ features drawn for each picture was also calculated following Low et al. (2009). The number of ‘impossible’ features for a picture was calculated and then divided by the number of overall features. An overall feature for the human was counted if it represented either of the following: head, face, body, arms and hands, legs and feet, hair or ears. A pair of legs or arms counted as a single feature and any additional features that were added, such as a tail on a human, were included as an overall feature. A feature was included as an overall feature for the dog if it represented the head, ears, face, body, front legs, back legs or tail. A feature was deemed as ‘impossible’ if it met the criteria of Scott and Baron-Cohen (1996) described above.
Cued ‘Impossible’ Pictures
The modified scoring system of Leevers and Harris (1998) was used for consistency with the spontaneous condition. In order for a child’s picture to be scored as ‘impossible’, the head of both the human or dog were misshapen, incorrectly orientated or positioned, alien features/elements were added to either the head or face or to other body parts on the template, or elements usually present were omitted. Elements usually present in a given entity that were omitted from the ‘impossible’ version, only allowed a definition of ‘impossible’ if these features were present on the head/face in the ‘non-impossible’ picture of the same creature. A picture was defined as unsuccessful if no ‘impossible’ features were detected.
The proportion of ‘impossible’ features drawn was also calculated as per the spontaneous condition.
Unreal Category Mixing
Children’s drawings were scored as per Craiget al. (2001). A score of ‘pass’ was recorded if children met the criteria of indicating a single entity that fused together elements of the two primary representations (e.g. the train–car condition had to be drawn as one ‘vehicle’ including features of both a train and a car). Children failed the task if two separate real entities were drawn or the drawing depicted only one of the two real entities for example only representing the dog and consisting of no human features. The number of features drawn in each picture was also counted.
Real pictures were scored for number of imaginative features as per the criteria used in the spontaneous condition in order to provide a baseline measure of whether children included impossible features in their real drawings. We also coded the number of features that changed between each child’s real picture of a human or dog and their spontaneous ‘impossible’ human or ‘impossible’ dog. The overall number of features drawn for each picture was also calculated to investigate whether children included a different number of features in their drawings dependent upon whether they were of real or ‘impossible’ entities.
Appendix 2: Examples of Drawings from Mental Age Matched Participants with ASD and LD
About this article
Cite this article
Allen, M.L., Craig, E. Brief Report: Imaginative Drawing in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Learning Disabilities. J Autism Dev Disord 46, 704–712 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2599-y
- Learning disabilities