An investigation into the pretend play shown by children with autism
This research investigated whether the absence of pretend play typically shown by children with autism is the result of a global inability to pretend, or reflects a failure to utilise intact pretend play abilities. A first experiment found that children with autism were impaired in their ability to produce spontaneous pretend play, relative to a matched group of children with moderate learning difficulties. They were also impaired in their production of pretence in elicited play conditions, in which direct encouragement to play was provided by the experimenter. However. a second experiment revealed that these children were not impaired in their ability to carry out pretend instructions. Further, a third experiment showed that they were unimpaired in their ability to comprehend pretend acts which the experimenter demonstrated before them. These findings suggest that pretend play is something that children with autism can engage in, at a basic level at least. Consequently, two final experiments aimed to determine why children with autism do not utilise this capacity spontaneously. The firs~ of these tested an 'executive deficit' hypothesis, which suggests that a failure to pretend is caused by a failure to disengage from the functional salience of objects. The results of the experiment disconfumed this prediction. The second test examined whether children with autism have problems in generating pretend acts, and found that this was the case. It is therefore hypothesised that children with autism suffer from some form of generativity impairment, which impinges on their apparently intact ability for pretence. This suggestion fits in with the pattern of results obtained from all the studies, as children were only impaired when the idea for pretence was not provided. Possible cause of such an impairment are discussed. as are the implications of these findings for our understanding of the psychology of pretend play.