Counterfactuals are the scenerios we play in our minds to imagine other worlds: what might happen, what could have happened. Counterfactuals are the "woulda, coulda, shouldas". The ability to create alternative worlds in our mind is a very common human trait. We do it all the time. It allows us to imagine our world in a different way and allows us to make changes in our world. We see this phenomenon in children manifest through imaginary friends, pretend play, and made up stories.
In studies, it has been shown that sociable children are more likely to have imaginary friends than shy children. Having imaginary friends allows a child to have greater theory of mind: a term used to describe the understanding that other people can think differently and have different beliefs and intentions than you do.
Children with autism, on the other hand, do not live in a world of counterfactuals and struggle with theory of mind. They are most comfortable with facts only and things which are measurable, logical and predictable. For many kids on the spectrum, pretend play just doesn't make much sense...why bother?
I've noticed lately that Calder has a really hard time making things up, surmising, and guessing. If it is not clear to him what is happening in a new picturebook for example, he hesitates to guess, or even make things up. "Whats happening in that picture?". "I don't know". We are learning right now how to 'use our imagination'. Our imagination is in our head (as concrete a biological placement as you can get), and our imagination is the part of us that makes up stories. This stumps him. Calder wants to be told the right answer in which case he will memorize in one instance. When asked the same question again at a later date, he will find the answer filed away in his mind and recall what you had once said. That is quite different than looking at a picture for clues to what is happening.
The other day I was trying to explain to him that when I cook rice pasta, I don't time it, I just guess when it may be done and then I test it. This really rocked his world. Up on his stool ready to punch in the time on our microwave timer, he just could not accept 'guessing'. We went back and forth forever...."give me a number", "no Calder, I'll wait and test it". Rice pasta is not nearly as forgiving as semolina pasta. It goes from raw, to falling apart and mushy very fast. And it depends on how much water and pasta is in the pot which I never measure. I think this is why he loves recipes and baking as much as he does, it is very concrete. Baking, in fact is much like a science.
Calder has been working on story skills with his therapists the past few weeks, and already since I have begun this post about a week ago, he is beginning to explain pictures. I don't doubt for one second that one day he will be making up so many stories I'll have to wonder what is truth and what is make believe.