Why acknowledged that pretend play, which develops in

Why Do Children with Autism Not
Pretend Play?

According to the American Psychological Association
(APA), Autism is the most severe developmental
disability. It appears within the first three years of life and comprises of

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deficiencies in social interaction for
instance, being conscious of the feelings of other’s. It also includes
impairments in verbal and nonverbal communication (“Autism and
Autism Spectrum Disorders”, n.d.). Also, according to the National Health
Service, it is estimated that around 1 in every 100 people in the United
Kingdom has Autism spectrum disorder
(ASD) and it is known that less girls are diagnosed compared to boys
(“Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)”, n.d.). As stated by Hess (2006),
children with autism have deficient play abilities, especially when play
involves pretence which in turn, significantly affects their process in
developing social skills. Their pretend play is missing substitution of objects
for real objects. As stated by Weisberg (2015), pretend play is a method of playful
behaviour that implicates action that is nonliteral. While from the outside,
this act seems to be only for enjoyment, research has recently uncovered that
pretend play in children links to crucial social and cognitive skills (e.g.
theory of mind). It is debated why autistic children tend not to display
pretend play. Some suggest it is due to impaired language development where as
some argue it is due to a lack of theory of mind.


Gould (1986) acknowledged that pretend play, which
develops in the ordinary infant during their second year of life, is commonly
said to be closely connected with the development of language. It was confirmed
in a longitudinal study by Shimada, Sano, and Peng (1979) that there is an
association between pretend play and language development. They examined the
development of play in four two-year-old Japanese infants from the period of 12
to 21 months of age, finding a suggested positive relationship between play and
language development. According to National Institute on Deafness and Other
with Communication Disorders (NIDCD), children with ASD may have difficulty in
language development (“Autism Spectrum Disorder: Communication Problems in
Children”, 2016) thus, as language development and pretend play are
connected (as suggested by Gould, 1986), this may explain why children with
autism rarely play pretend.


Gould’s (1986) findings support this explanation.
She used the Symbolic Play Test to study language development. This is a
popular test that helps recognise the primary skills essential for the
development of language. This is done through observing the child as they play
with tiny objects in a range of scenarios. In doing this test, it specifies a
clear image of a child’s early perception construction and symbolisation. These
are skills that lead and progress beside language (“Symbolic Play
Test”, n.d.). She gave 31 socially deficient and 29 sociable children who
lacked language understanding who were in the same age range (five years up
till twelve years) and intelligence. It was found that in the sociable
children, spontaneous pretend play and their play test age were at the same
normal level that was expected for their intelligence level thus, correlated
however, those socially impaired had pretend play that was lower than what
their play test age would foretell. To further back up this theory of language
development and pretend play in autistic children having a link, those socially
impaired with a normal play age showed no substantial dissimilarity in language
comprehension age. For example, when doll-related pretend play is expected,
half of the socially impaired children with a play age above 20 months, had no
spontaneous imaginative play at all (Gould 1986). This suggests that there is
indeed a link between pretend play and autistic children’s slower language
development. However, there are limitations to this supporting evidence.
Numerous studies that look into pretend play in autism have utilised poor
descriptions of what ‘pretend’ is. For instance, Gould (1986) uses the Lowe
& Costello (1976) definition of pretend which states that pretend behaviour
comprises of behaviours as doing one’s own makeup or a doll’s nails, or sipping
empty tea cup (Baron-Cohen, 1987). The downside to this definition is that
there is nothing essentially ‘pretend’ about them as it assumes that play with
toys that are miniature is certainly pretend as they are just smaller versions
of real world objects however, this postulation might not be consistent as for
the child, the tiny object may be seen as merely a tiny object but an object
that is real and exists. Subsequently, this study by Gould (1986) may
miscalculate the occurrence of pretend play due to the utilisation of
inadequate conditions and definitions.


However, further provide supporting evidence for
this theory, Wing & Gould (1979) discovered that many children who were
socially impaired with comprehension of speech well above the level at which
imaginative play would be expected, had little or no spontaneous pretend play.
Perhaps this is why children with autism don’t pretend play due to their slower
language development, as a certain standard of language and cognition is
required to play pretend. 


Further findings support this theory for instance,
further evidence from Hill and Nicolich (1981) in which they examined the
relationship between cognitive functioning of Down’s syndrome subjects and
their play. Each participant was observed during a one hour play period.
Following this, they were measured by the Bayley Scales of Infant Development
(which measures the developmental performance of children (Hack, 2005))
and behaviour record. It was found that play levels were more correlated with mental
age versus actual age. Therefore, providing additional support for the link
between hindered language development and pretend play as it shows evidence
that a lower mental age (hindered cognitive development) positively correlates
with lower play levels. Moreover, the finding that mental age is more related
to play levels rather than their actual age shows support for the theory that
pretend play is an accurate representation of cognitive development.


Despite this evidence, others argue that children
with autism do not pretend play due to other reasons. Some argue it is due to
autistic children lacking a ‘theory of mind’. As stated by Goldman (n.d.),
‘theory of mind’ indicates the cognitive capability to attribute mental states
to self and others. There is a suggested link between autism and theory of mind
in that, they lack the ability to perceive and attribute the mental states of
their own and others’. Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith (1985), studied
cognitive deficiency and suggested that they could explain a fundamental
element of the social impairment in childhood autism. One of the displays of a
basic metarepresentational capability is a ‘theory of mind’. If an autistic
child lacked theory of mind, they wouldn’t be able to attribute beliefs to
others and to thus, foresee their behaviour. This explains their lack of social
skills. There is evidence that proposes that autistic children lack such a
‘theory of mind’, such as when Cohen, Leslie & Frith (1985) tested whether
autistic children lack a ‘theory of mind’ using a puppet play. They used normal
children and individuals with Down’s syndrome as controls for a set of children
who were autistic. While the mental age of the autistic children was greater
than the controls’, they in fact failed to attribute beliefs to others.
Therefore, suggesting that those who are autistic, lack a ‘theory of mind’.
Because of this evidence, some argue that due to this their lack of, this is
why they don’t tend to pretend play.

A commonly used test to measure
a theory of mind is a false-belief task. As defined by Bauminger-Zviely (2013)
A false-belief task is based on understanding of false beliefs. This is the
understanding that an individual’s belief may differ with actuality. Hughes
& Dunn (1997) state that children with autism show noticeable delay in
their awareness of mental states (i.e. theory of mind) and their pretend play.
Evidence such as this propose that the deficiency of pretend play and theory of
mind frequently observed in children with autism may be more meticulously tied
to the particular field of “theory of mind” than to general cognitive factors
such as language development. Oswald and Ollendick (1989) deployed a deception
game called the ‘penny-hiding game’ with individuals with autism and found an
impaired capability for deception which connected with scores on a false belief
(or theory of mind) test. Evidently, this study doesn’t involve pretend play
explicitly thus, it isn’t concrete support for this theory however, pretend
play does have an element of deception when it comes to autism as they do not
have the capacity to play ‘pretend’. If they played pretend with an adult, it
would almost be deception for the autistic child as they are more likely to
believe that what is happening is actually real, that it isn’t pretend thus,
being deceived. Baron-Cohen (1985) conducted an experiment that involved a
puppet condition that involved attribution of a false belief and a mental performance task with autistic and non-autistic
children. If these tasks are measuring their theory of mind thus, there should
be constant results in these two tasks. Most of the autistic children failed
consistently on both tasks therefore, further suggesting that because autistic
children have a poor theory of mind, this is why they do not pretend play.
However, some autistic children performed inconsistently (i.e. performed well
on one task but not on the other) thus, lowering the validity of this study
furthermore, reducing its credibility as support for this theory.

In conclusion, there are multiple studies that
provide explanations as to why autistic children do not pretend play. However,
none of these findings show a direct causal link therefore, we cannot know for
sure why this is. Jarrold (2003) recommends that future research may therefore
need to focus less on the child’s mental state, when they are pretending, or on
the actions that they produce to enact pretend scenarios, and instead return to
the question of why they bother engaging in this unusual behaviour in the first
place. Jarrold (2003) suggests that nevertheless, practically, estimating
whether an individual is truly pretending is remarkably difficult thus, pretend
play only gives us subsidiary indications as to what children might be
pretending if, in fact they are. In fact, Jarrold (2003) also argues that
individuals with autism may have an unbroken fundamental capability to pretend,
though some reason aren’t able to transform this into action. Therefore, they
may be able to pretend play, but there are underlying deficits that prevent
them from doing so.