Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Early Childhood

Metacommunication, Social Pretend Play and Children with Autism

Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Early Childhood

Metacommunication, Social Pretend Play and Children with Autism

Article excerpt


One of the diagnostic features of autism is difficulties in pretend play. Recent studies have shown that children with autism can engage in pretence (see Jarrold, 2003). However, little research so far has looked specifically at the degree to which children with autism are able to engage in shared or negotiated pretence in interactive contexts, in the form of collaborative social pretend play.

This article investigates processes of engagement in social pretend play between children with autism and adult play partners, using a large corpus of naturalistic conversational data from a small group of children with autism. We take a qualitative discourse analytic approach to investigate the metacommunicative strategies used by the children.

The particular focus of the article is to investigate the degree to which these children interact and engage with their play partner in the unfolding pretend play episode and to begin to examine in detail how the process of engagement operates through linguistic verbal and nonverbal signalling. We take as our initial framework for exploring these issues Giffin's (1984) model of verbal and nonverbal metacommunication in sociodramatic pretend play. We develop this model further by proposing a cline of engagement along which we can situate the children in our study.

Autism, Autistic Disorder, Asperger Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder are terms variously used to classify a related group of Pervasive Developmental Disorders. The diagnostic criteria for autism refer to the presence of impairments in three areas: delayed and atypical language and communication; difficulties in reciprocal social interaction; and the presence of restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour. There is also a developmental aspect, with onset prior to three years of age (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 65-67). The term 'Autism Spectrum Disorder' (ASD) has risen to prominence to capture the insight that this is a heterogeneous group in which the manifestation of the triad of impairments above may vary between individuals and even within individuals across time.

Early research noted the absence of pretence in children with autism (Asperger, 1944; Kanner, 1943), and lack of pretend play is mentioned twice in the current two internationally recognised diagnostic manuals (DSM-IV-TR, APA, 2000; and International Classification of Diseases, 10th edition, World Health Organization, 1992, 1993). However, more recent studies have shown that children with autism can engage in pretend play, either when prompted or even spontaneously (Jarrold, Boucher & Smith, 1996; Lewis & Boucher, 1988; Mifsud, Kelly, Dissanayake & Leekam, 2009). Furthermore, children with autism demonstrate good comprehension of pretend acts, suggesting that the difficulty in participating in pretend play is not because of a limited capacity to make sense of non-literal behaviours (Jarrold et al., 1994; Kavanaugh & Harris, 1994).

Neurotypical children begin to engage in social pretend play with peers and/or siblings during the third year of life (Piaget, 1962). Play becomes increasingly complex and abstract as children get older, and peer partners are increasingly sought in these episodes of play (Howes, 1985; Howes, Unger & Beizer Seidner, 1989).

Rakoczy argues that early pretend play is an advanced form of both individual and collective intentionality (Rakoczy, 2008). In fact, collective intentionality is a critical aspect of social pretend play. It is not enough for play partners to simply agree to pursue their individual intentions in parallel. In order for the pretend play scenario to successfully evolve, the play partners must engage in what Rakoczy terms 'we' intentionality, or collective intentionality, where all participants agree to suspend reality in a particular way and commit to acting jointly in the pursuit of a joint goal--in this case the production of a story or pretend event,

Sawyer (1993, p. …

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