ISEC 2005

Inclusive and Supportive Education Congress
International Special Education Conference
Inclusion: Celebrating Diversity?

1st - 4th August 2005. Glasgow, Scotland

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Joint-imaginative play with ‘representational others’
in pre-school children with autism

Dr. Helen Marwick
University of Strathclyde, Scotland
helen.marwick@strath.ac.uk

Professor Gilbert MacKay
University of Strathclyde, Scotland

The Joint-Play Intersubjectivity Assessment Method (JPIAM) is a method of intervention and assessment in relation to communication, social understanding and imaginative representation in autism. It uses a joint-play setting for a series of interactions for pre-school children with autism with an adult partner, and applies a comprehensive category system of interpersonal understanding and interaction. Recent work with the JPIAM has revealed the presence and development of rich joint-imaginative play and symbolic representation across a range of children with autism over the course of a five-month intervention period, which contrasts with many earlier reported findings in the literature on creative symbolic imaginative representation abilities in children with autism.

This paper presents detailed findings of the occurrence and development in a group of 18 pre-school children with autism of joint-imaginary play involving representational others. The results indicate the social interactive basis of imaginative development, and the theoretical implication of this in relation to imaginative representation abilities in children with autism are drawn out.

Introduction

Children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been reported to demonstrate little or no imaginative play with symbolic representation, and deficits in spontaneous imaginative creativity in pretend play (Jarrold et al, 1993; Wolfberg, 1999; Beyer and Gammeltoft, 2000; Janert, 2000) and this is reflected in diagnostic criteria for autism (ICD-10, World Health Organisation, 1992; DSM-IV, American Psychiatric Association, 1994; Charman and Baird, 2002). Deficits in imaginative play have been argued to indicate underlying difficulties in symbolic representation and meta-representation abilities in children with autism (Leslie, 1987; Baron-Cohen, 1995), which also impact upon perspective-taking abilities and social understanding.

However, the communication, social interaction and imaginative play of children with an ASD has been found to develop markedly when facilitated in interactive play by a trained adult, older child, or peer ( Libby et al, 1998; Beyer and Gammeltoft, 2000; Janert, 2000; Zercher et al, 2001; Sherrat, 2002; Marwick and MacKay, 2004), which corresponds with the importance of social interactive play in typical development for interpersonal conceptual and linguistic development (Stern 2000; Trevarthen, 2001) and the development of symbolic representation and imaginative activity (Vygotsky, 1978; Trevarthen & Marwick, 1986; Bornstein et al., 1996; Emde et al., 1997; Tamis-Lemonda et al., 1998).

This has led to the theoretical position that the lack of imaginative play demonstrated by children with autism follows, not from deficits in symbolic representation processes and meta-representation abilities, but from the children’s lessened motivation to engage in social interaction, which, in turn, lessens the opportunities for essential co-constructed joint-imaginative play experiences (Jordan, 2003; Marwick and MacKay, 2004).

Recent work (Marwick and MacKay, 2004, Marwick et al., 2005) using the Joint-Play Intersubjectivity Assessment Method (Marwick, 2001) has revealed the presence and development of rich joint-imaginative play and symbolic representation across a group of 18 pre-school children with autism over the course of a five-month intervention period

The Joint-Play Intersubjectivity Assessment Method (JPIAM) is a method of intervention and assessment in relation to communication, social understanding and imaginative representation in autism, which reflects the importance of joint-play as a developmental process. It uses a joint-play setting with matched toy-boxes and matched sets of toys within these, for a series of interactions for pre-school children with autism with an adult partner, and applies a comprehensive category system of interpersonal understanding and interaction.

The JPIAM setting is designed to facilitate shared interpersonal focus, interpersonal contingency and cooperation, and, in this way, is designed to encourage the child’s motivation to engage with another person and to promote the different types of joint play found in typical development: expressive-attentive joint-play (e.g. contrasts in facial expression, voicing, pitch, and sharing attentive experience such as watching bubbles); co-operative goal-directed play, (such as blowing and bursting bubbles, stacking games, give and take games, hide and find games, turn-taking sequences ); and joint imaginative play (such as using representational toy objects conventionally or symbolically, role play, and including a soft toy or doll as an additional representational animated participant) (Marwick, 2001). In this way interpersonal purposes and expectations, shared understanding, communicative effectiveness and awareness of another’s perspective are encouraged for both the child and the adult.

In the study reported by Marwick and MacKay (2004) the 18 pre-school children with autism took part in 14 weekly joint-play sessions with an adult play partner, and all 18 participants in the study showed developments in engagement, communication and shared interpersonal understanding. Most children showed progression in involvement in imaginative joint play, with over three quarters of the participants involved in imaginative joint play with symbolic representational others. Marwick and Mackay went on to give a detailed analysis of levels of shared symbolic representation in imaginary play demonstrated by the children by the end of the study, and also the levels of joint-imaginative play demonstrated by the children involving a representational participant soft toy, puppet or doll.

Dividing the children into four groups on the basis of their starting point assessed in the first joint-play session in relation to the establishment of interpersonal engagement, the level and extent of joint-play, and whether or not joint-imaginative play was shown involving the use of a participant representational other (groups which tended to accord with the language levels of the children), it was found that, for the groups with limited engagement and play at the outset of the study most went on to present conventional symbolic representation in play, some showed meta-representational abilities and a smaller number became involved in joint-imaginative scenarios and role-play. Even where joint-play was initially absent or limited, many children progressed to be able to enter into joint-imaginary play with symbolic representational others with conventional roles and uses, such as feeding the puppet with a spoon or making the doll drive the car. These children were also found to progress to being able to involve the representational other in meta-representational pretence and de-contextualised scenarios, such as making pretend food for the soft toy or having the doll go to the town on the train. Some of these children were able to give a perspective–taking response to the representational other when the adult attributed a need or purpose to the soft toy – such as giving the dice to the teddy when the adult suggested that teddy would like a turn in the game.

Involving the soft toy in playing a role (such as teddy being a postman) and giving a perspective to the representational other, which involved attributing needs and purposes to the soft toy or puppet, was achieved by fewer children, although all the children who were able at the outset to use a representational other at some level in their imaginative play were able to achieve this. Marwick and Mackay showed how the perspective-giving attributions of needs and purposes to a representational other by one child in this group followed upon consistent opportunities provided by the adult play partner for the child to give perspective-giving responses to a representational other. This is argued to indicate the interactive process of imaginative development, and it is the purpose of this paper to examine this process in more detail for all the participants in relation to joint-imaginative play with a ‘representational other’. In particular we wished to look at the use of representational others in imaginative play by the adult play partner in relation to that of the child

Of the 18 participating pre-school children, 13 had a diagnosis of autism and 4 had a diagnosis of high functioning autism, and 1 had a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. Six of the children had additional learning difficulties. The language and communication skills of the children with high functioning autism were good although some pragmatic difficulties were present. At the outset of the study, three children with autism used vocalisations but not words, six children produced only single word utterances, and four children used 2-3 word phrases.

As in the previous study, the children were divided into four groups on the basis of their starting point assessed in the first joint-play session in relation to the establishment of interpersonal engagement, the level and extent of joint-play, and whether or not joint-imaginative play was shown involving the use of a participant representational other. These groups tended to accord with the language levels of the children.

For this study, all the joint-imaginary play episodes involving a representational other for each child and adult play partner over the 14 sessions were organized sequentially and by sub-category. The sub-categories looked at the relation between the child’s involvement of a representational other in play to that of the adult    - ‘ imitating’, ‘developing’, ‘initiating’, ‘accepts’ and ‘non-developing’ – within 3 overarching sub-categories of imaginative play with a representational other; ‘as a person’ - conventional symbolic and meta-symbolic interpersonal acts, such as feeding doll with a spoon, or giving teddy a pretend cake; ‘as an active participant’ (in the ongoing interaction) – such as doll ‘having a turn’ in a game, or playing a clapping game with teddy; ‘as an interactive participant’ (in the ongoing interaction) – where doll or teddy is given communicative purposes and feelings in relation to the child or adult within the ongoing interaction, teddy asking child to help with putting on his coat.

Table 1 shows the development of play with a representational other for one child, who at the start of the study had ‘engagement and limited play’, and their adult play-partner.

Table 1. Development of play with a representational other for one child, who at the start of the study had ‘engagement and limited play’, and their adult play-partner. Figures indicate number of episodes

Session

Play sub-type

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

As person:

Adult

4

1

1

1

1

1

C imitates

2

1

1

1

C develops

1

1

1

C initiates

1

1

3

C non-dev

1

1

Active participant:

Adult

3

3

1

2

2

3

5

C accepts

1

1

1

3

1

C imitates

C develops

2

3

2

1

4

C initiates

1

1

C non-dev

1

1

Interactive participant:

Adult

3

3

1

4

1

4

C imitates

1

C develops

1

2

1

3

1

4

C initiates

1

C non-dev

1

Table 1. shows the movement for this child and adult pair firstly into play involving dolls

and teddies ‘as a person’ and then from that to imaginative play which increasingly involves the representational other as an active participant (e.g. taking a turn in goal-directed games) and an interactive participant (with communicative purposes in relation to the child and adult). While ‘initiations’ of these types of play are not frequent for this child, the child can be seen to increasingly actively develop the initiations of the adult - being able to involve a symbolic participant in the interaction and giving effectiveness to communicative perspectives projected by the adult onto the symbolic participant.

These results are in agreement with earlier findings, which indicate the interactive process of imaginative development for pre-school children with autism. This accords with the social interactive process of imaginative development in typical development, and supports the theoretical position that the lack of imaginative play demonstrated by children with autism can be understood to follow from the children’s lessened motivation to engage in social interaction, which, in turn, reduces opportunities for essential co-constructed joint-imaginative play experiences.

References

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