This is mommy talk, not science talk, though of course if you have any data or studies along this line, I'd be happy to see them.
One of the things I have noticed the most over the years that distinguishes my son from the typical child, is NOT the lack of eye contact or social interaction.
It's his lack of imagination.
Toys don't talk to each other in play. I never used to hear 'what if' or even the words 'pretend'.
His world was filled with strict literal meanings, analytical play, memorizing facts and details. He can recite the stats off every Yugioh card, he knows all the rules, (in order) in his player's handbook. He can tell you, step by step how to win at chess. He can list the parts of a steam train, and electric train and how they work, who invented what and where. He can recite nearly every resource he has read on trains (and believe me, there are many resources. This was a five year long obsession that thankfully has toned down to a mere hobby). He can explain to you how your circulatory system works, or your respiratory system.
He uses an adult vocabulary with a preschool diction (speech trouble, due in part to delayed development). He can list the different definitions for any word that has taken his interest. He knows the rules to baseball, basketball and badminton. While playing a sport he calls every penalty/foul or w/e, even if it's against himself or his teammates. Interestingly enough, although he struggles to speak correctly in English, he loves learning French. He recites the grammar rules and translations happily.
The world, for him, has been sorted into as many categories as he can find, distinguished by factual characteristics.
Then something amazing happened. Something wondrous.
My husband got it into his head to make this game for the family to play. He took the 3D aspect of warhammer and changed the rules. He wrote the rules for each 'job' a 'character' could have. He created a 60 page rule book.
We sat down with the kids, with a few warhammer figurines, and went through the rule book.
In this game (our kids call it 'the game') you get a figurine to represent your character. You roll dice to determine if you move around on the board (three card tables pushed together with homemade scenery, much like a diorama you see train fanatics use) or if you battle a 'monster'. It is a dice roll controlled game involving lots of math. This game has magic, dragons, hero's and villains. But more importantly, it has RULES (my son loves rules). It requires that the children WRITE information on their character sheet, do the math to track their characters abilities and life(hitpoints). We played regularly over winter (it goes to minus 40 here over the winter).
The kids decided they wanted cooler scenery for the 'game board'. I bought some hirst arts molds (www.hirstarts.com) and we made castles and bridges all to scale. We scoured the INTERNET for instructions on making cool trees, rivers and lakes. AND... AND... my son, who can barely hold a fork and HATES crafting, discovered a love of castles and building.
He designs his own, builds them and paints them. He still gets agitated over getting his hands messy but once he cleans up he gets right back to it. Then he decided to paint his own warhammer figurine. (These are DIFFICULT, lots of tiny parts to paint with a toothpick.) Then he became fascinated with dragons. And all things to do with Medieval times.
He began to write (with horrible printing and spelling) some amazing stories about heroes, dragons, castles, wizards. He began to read fiction books not just encyclopedias. He began to draw. I watched as a whole new world opened for him. Don't get me wrong, this was as trying as it was exciting. He had trouble distinguishing pretend from real.
We had many a discussion on how some things are just for fun and not real. That not all books are facts and how to sort through them. At first, he had difficulty, but soon it 'clicked' for him. (with reminders still needed now and again, lol)
Now, he sets up his army guys (those little plastic army's) and instead of re-enacting historic battles he has a dragon (lego i think) that attacks them. They talk to each other. Sometimes they make friends with the dragon. More often the dragon defeats them.
I watch this imagination helping him with some small aspects of socializing. It's all hindsight right now (that is to say after an incident when we are discussing it and I ask him to pretend he is the other child, and tell me what happened from that child's point of view. Sometimes (not often, but still!) he CAN). At the very least, it is a beginning.
He is still very literal (although he is trying for pun humour these days. Not always successful, but still growth is growth). He still clings to data and lists the way some children do a favourite blanket. But so many difficult times and feelings can be helped with imagination. I am so excited to see him enter the world of what if and find a love for creativity.
Sometimes parenting is more than merely rewarding. It is uplifting and inspiring. I love watching his unique way of taking in information and applying it in such unexpected ways.
The heart of a child is an incredible thing.