What is atypical about symbolic play among children with autism? In a previous study (Hobson & Hobson, 2007), matched children with and without autism were similar in the ‘mechanics’ of play, but those with autism showed less ‘playful pretence’.
To test predictions that:
(i) Across non-typically developing groups, limitations in pretend play would be associated with social/communication impairment
(ii) Children with autism would show specific deficits in ‘playful pretend’.
(iii) ‘Playful pretend’ scores would correlate with social/communication impairment, even after controlling for limitations in pretend play ability.
Participants were (i) 60 atypically developing children (28 with autism, 15 with autism spectrum disorders, and 17 with learning disabilities but without autism) between the ages of three and nine years, matched for chronological age, verbal mental age and gender, and (ii) 33 typically developing three to six year old children. Children were administered the Preschool Language Scales – III; Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS); and Test of Pretend Play (ToPP), also coded by two blind judges for four aspects of playful pretence: Investment in symbolic meanings (ICC = .93), Fun (ICC = .92), Creativity (ICC = .96) and Self-awareness in creating new meanings (ICC = .88).
Children in the atypically developing groups were not significantly different in ToPP scores. However, limitations in ToPP pretend play were associated with social/communication impairment (scores on the ADOS), r(60) = -.28, p < .05, two-tailed). Children with autism, but not those with ASD, showed specific deficits in playful pretence relative to the LD group, t(43) = 2.55, p < .05, two-tailed. ‘Playful pretend’ scores were correlated with social/communication impairment, even after controlling for limitations in pretend play ability, partial-r(57) = -.29, p < .05.
Specifically social/communicative contributions to creative pretend play are limited among children with autism.