Engaging the Play Partner in Pretence: Verbal and Non-Verbal Signalling between Children with ASD and Their Parents

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
L. Stirling1, S. Douglas1, C. Dissanayake2 and S. Conte1, (1)School of Languages & Linguistics, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia, (2)Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

It is well accepted that pretend play is critical for children’s development, and also that sophisticated communicative abilities are essential for collaborative pretend play to proceed successfully, as the players must negotiate the transformed meanings that constitute the pretence. This involves each play partner gaining the other’s acceptance of the potential intended pretend play elements they wish to include. Research on the degree to which children with ASD are able to engage in shared or negotiated pretence in interactive contexts in the form of collaborative social pretend play is ongoing, but has generally not focused on the conversational interaction which accompanies the play. This project compares social pretend play sessions between adult/child pairs from an ASD and typically developing (TD) group, focusing on verbal and non-verbal communicative strategies used by both adult and child to engage the play partner in the developing pretend scenario.


This study is part of an on-going project which investigates the ways in which high-functioning children with ASD interact and communicate with their play partners during pretend play. We propose that studying engagement in pretence from a discourse analytic perspective may allow us to build more adequate theories around pretence deficits in ASD, and we hypothesise that communicative interactions involved in collaborative pretend play between children with ASD and their play partners will be found to be atypical in the sequential organisation of their verbal and/or non-verbal signalling.


Video data from 20 high-functioning children with ASD and 20 TD children, age range approximately 4-8 years old and matched on Verbal Mental Age, had been collected for a previous research project. We used a detailed discourse analytic approach to re-examine a 10-minute free play session from these data. In particular, the sessions were coded for the number of attempts to engage the play partner verbally or non-verbally in the play – “solicitations” – and for whether these attempts were successfully taken up by the partner in order to progress the play.


Results from a pilot study of 10 children in this corpus show only small differences in the types of signalling produced by the children. However we found that adults in the ASD dyads produced approximately 50% more “solicitations” than adults in the TD dyads and that these were less likely to be taken up by the children. Adults used more non-verbal signalling with ASD children and their attempts to engage ASD children were more likely to succeed when they aligned with the child’s plot developments and when they involved non-verbal signalling rather than purely verbal communication. Analysis of the full data set is on-going.


An earlier study of this data set using behavioural coding of the play had showed no significant differences in symbolic pretend play behaviour between the groups except for small frequency differences in object substitution. However a discourse analytic approach allows us to identify some differences, which have implications for potential intervention. This study illustrates a complex interaction between differences in children’s contributions and differences in parental style.