Symbolizing as Interpersonally Grounded Shifts in Meaning: Social Play in Children With and Without Autism

Abstract

The aim of this study was to examine the relation between symbolic play and communicative engagement among children with and without autism. Our predictions were firstly, that in moment-by-moment interactions during semi-structured interactive play with an adult, children with and without autism would tend to show shifts in meanings in symbolic play when engaged in coordinated states of joint engagement (events involving ‘sharing-of-meaning’); secondly, that across atypically developing participants, sharing-of-meaning would (a) correlate with scores on a standardized test of pretend play, and (b) be inversely correlated with scores on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule; and finally, that participants with autism would contrast with matched developmentally delayed participants in manifesting lower levels of joint engagement, lower levels of symbolic play, and fewer shifts in symbolic meaning. Each of these predictions was borne out. The intimate developmental relation between social engagement and symbolic play appears to be important for explaining the developmental psychopathology of autism.

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Acknowledgments

We express our appreciation to the following schools who took part in this project: Blossom House School, Edith Borthwick School, Fawood Children’s Centre, Helen Allison School, PreSchool Family, Rokesley Infant School, Russet House School, Springhallow School, Swiss Cottage School, and Tolworth Infant School. We would also like to express our appreciation to the parents who agreed for their children to participate, and the children who made this study possible. Funding for the project came from a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R03 Grant HD048654-01A1 awarded to the first and second authors, entitled Social and Cognitive Components of Play in Autism. We are grateful to Peter Mundy for his valuable input, as Consultant on the grant. Additional support to the first author was received from the Foundation for Autism Research and Remediation (FARR). Portions of the results have been presented at the Society for Research in Child Development. We thank our former students: Kyratso Bargiota, Jessica Clarke, Rachel Hamblin, and Katharina Kudak for their assistance with testing and coding.

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Correspondence to Jessica A. Hobson.

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Hobson, J.A., Hobson, R.P., Cheung, Y. et al. Symbolizing as Interpersonally Grounded Shifts in Meaning: Social Play in Children With and Without Autism. J Autism Dev Disord 45, 42–52 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-014-2122-x

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Keywords

  • Autism
  • Symbolic play
  • Joint attention
  • Communication
  • Social engagement