Do Play Contexts Impact Engagement States in Preschool Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
A large proportion of a preschool child’s day is spent in play. As a result, it is often through play that children interact with their environment. This makes play a powerful tool for clinicians to use during intervention with preschool children. Existing research has shown that many preschool children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have challenges in social engagement, however, very little research has examined the extent to which play context affects how children with ASD engage with their environment. Discovering which play contexts are more conducive to engagement could inform the context in which clinicians conduct therapy with children with ASD and shape recommendations about play context for parents of children with ASD.
To explore the impact of two different play contexts (symbolic and gross motor) on the engagement states of pre-school children with ASD.
Seventy-one children with ASD aged 25-57 months were videotaped during natural play interactions with a parent. Five minutes each of play with symbolic toys and play with gross motor toys were used to examine children’s engagement states. Data used in this study were part of a larger RCT, however, only pre-treatment, parent-child play interactions were examined here. Time-tagged video coding of the children’s engagement states was conducted using Datavyu software and Adamson and colleagues’ (2010) engagement coding system. The 8 engagement codes were collapsed into three categories of engagement states: (1) not engaged with parent, (2) engaged with parent only, or (3) engaged in joint attention.
On average, participants spent significantly more time not engaged with their parent during play with symbolic toys than during play with gross motor toys (t(70) = -2.65, p < 0.05). During play with gross motor toys, a significantly greater amount of time was spent engaged with their parent only (t(70) = 4.12, p < 0.05), compared to when children were playing with symbolic toys. There was no significant difference in joint attention between the gross motor and symbolic play contexts (p > 0.05).
Play contexts seem to impact how pre-school children with ASD engage with their environment. Children with ASD engage with parents for a greater proportion of time when in an environment with gross motor toys as compared to when in an environment with symbolic toys. Clinicians might benefit from using gross motor play contexts when targeting social engagement goals with preschoolers with ASD. Clinicians may be reassured that gross motor play appears to be equally useful as symbolic play for targeting engagement in joint attention.