Play and Playfulness in Young Children with Autism
Play, especially “pretend play”, is considered of central importance to children’s cognitive, social and emotional development (Singer & Singer, 2006). Greenspan and Weider (1998) have argued that the transition to imaginary play represents a major developmental achievement, allowing children to experiment with ideas. Holding both real and imaginative perspectives in mind allows the child self-reflection and the ability to differentiate between subjective and objective experiences. Most children develop the capacity for pretend play when their caregivers are involved in playful interactions. Playfulness has been described as a state of mind in which an individual can think flexibly (Youelle, 2008) and involves intrinsic motivation, internal control, the freedom to suspend reality and framing (Bundy, 1997). Children with autism have been found to be less playful than typically developing children (Hamm, 2006; Muys, Rodger, & Bundy, 2006). In children with autism, deficits in flexibility, imagination and social skills can affect both play and playfulness (Skaines, Rodger, & Bundy, 2006).
This main objective of this study is to examine links between play and playfulness in young children with autism. In addition, correlational analyses between play and playfulness, on the one hand, and cognitive and language functioning, severity of autism symptomotology, and imitation skills, on the other hand, will shed light on the interrelatedness of these two developmental constructs.
Forty children with autism spectrum diagnoses based on ADI and ADOS-2, aged 2 ½ to four years old, participated in this study. After diagnostic ascertainment, each participant underwent a comprehensive assessment of cognitive abilities (Mullen Scales), language functioning (PLS), and imitation skills (MIA). Their play and playfulness were assessed in a videotaped 30-minute play session with their mother, which was subsequently coded (Test of Playfulness, Bundy, 1993).
Playfulness and play were not correlated and each had a specific profile of correlations with the other variables. Both play and playfulness were positively correlated with imitation abilities. Positive correlations emerged between receptive language and playfulness and between expressive language and play. A positive correlation was found between severity of autism symptomology and both play and playfulness, which remained even after controlling for developmental level.
The present research has introduced playfulness as an additional element to be examined in young children with autism. Although it has several overlapping characteristics with pretend and symbolic play, it also has a unique pattern of correlations with other developmental parameters, such as developmental status, language abilities and imitation. The relationship between playfulness and receptive language as differentiated from the relationship between level of play and expressive language is particularly important in conceptualizing the various interrelated variables affecting the development and interactions of young child with autism with those in their environment. The implications for interventions with young children with autism are discussed.