A study that appears in the January 2010 online preview issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders examines the role of early functional play and an eventual autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. The study, “Play and Developmental Outcomes in Infant Siblings of Children with Autism,” examined the play habits of 18-month old children that had a sibling with autism to those that do not have a sibling on the autism spectrum.
Three specific types of play were examined: functional, symbolic, and repeated. Overall, the survey showed that infant siblings of children on the autism spectrum that eventually went on to receive an ASD diagnosis themselves (ASD sibling group) had more repeated play behaviors and fewer functional play behaviors than the typically-developing control group. However, both groups scored similarly in the symbolic play area, which is likely due to their age.
Autism and Play Study Hypotheses
The early functional play study operated on three different hypotheses. The first hypothesis was that the ASD sibling group would exhibit less functional play behaviors than the control group. The second hypothesis of the study projected that the ASD siblings would have more non-functional repetitive play than the control group.
The final hypothesis examined during this research study examined functional repeated play. The research team predicted that there would be no statistical difference between the ASD sibling and control groups in the arena of functional, repetitive play.
Autism and Play Study Results
The researchers accurately predicted that the ASD sibling group would exhibit fewer functional play behaviors than their typical counterparts. Additionally, infant siblings of children with autism also participated in more repetitive play that was not functional in nature when compared to the control group. However, both groups participated in functional repeated play at similar rates.
The fact that the ASD sibling group participated in significantly fewer functional play behaviors supports the theory that impairments in play are evident from a very young age and may help in more accurately diagnosing children with autism at a younger age.
Although the children were assessed at 18 months, which is quite young, these children are already engaging in behavior that is noticeably different than their typically developing peers. This is most evident in the increase of non-functional repeated play that was observed during the research study.
What is important to note is that some level of repetitive play is to be expected in an 18-month old child and does not indicate an autism spectrum disorder. However, it is the type of repetitive play that is being observed that may be cause for concern. Examples of non-functional repetitive play that may raise warning flags including hand flapping, mouthing objects, spinning toys, and other such actions.
Although this research was limited by the fact that the play sessions observed were limited to four-minutes each, the study will likely serve as a starting point for more detailed research. With autism, early diagnosis is one of the most important tools and often leads to a better outcome. The more research conducted on how autism presents in the infant stage, the better results these children will see.
Christensen, L., et. al. (2010). Play and Developmental Outcomes in Infant Siblings of Children with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
This article was originally published on Suite101.com.