Facilitating pretend play in children with autism through interactive, augmented narratives
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date31/07/2022
Pretend play is a key developmental tool, with its early performance being a predictor for later language, social interaction and communication skills. The level of these skills in turn influences an individual’s ability to build social relationships, independence and integrate into the society. Autistic children, however, show marked impairments in the qualitative and quantitative use of pretend play compared to typically developing children. Hence, researchers recommend the development of pretend play as one of the main targets of educational programs for young autistic children. However, such educational programs are very rare and those that exist have moderately successful results, at best. Recently, technology is gaining popularity for its educational and therapeutic potential with autistic individuals. A new form of technology that allows physical objects to be augmented with digital information showed that children pretended more with the augmented objects compared to when the objects were not augmented. This raised the question of how can we design technology to facilitate pretend play in autistic children in the natural, school context, and whether it would help them transfer their learning to a non-technology setup. During this research, a series of studies with practitioners, children and researchers was carried out to understand how pretend play is supported in practice and how to produce a set of design guidelines for creating technologies to foster pretend play. Based on those studies, three digital, interactive stories were designed, where children could change physical objects into food or drinks. Then, to determine whether the application can help children develop pretend play, it was evaluated on a sample group of 9 children with autism, joined by a practitioner. Overall, this research revealed that the proposed application can help children develop pretend play. Children showed longer, more frequent and complex pretend play acts after playing with the interactive stories compared to before. Children responded positively to system’s scaffolding: different types of pretend play acts with some of them being able to initiate (novel) symbolic play acts not specifically scaffolded by the system (or the adult) and diverse (unique) acts. Besides, children found the interactive play stories enjoyable with some of the practitioners asking for the tool to be used in the classroom.