Interactive Pretending

bemalte schöne kinderhände

Pretend play and Autism. A fascinating activity, pretend play (also referred to as imaginary, symbolic, fantasy, make-believe, or role play) is generally thought of as an important part of children’s learning. In particular, pretend play is considered helpful for the development of language, social and educational abilities of a child.

In pretend play children “add” an imaginary world on top of reality. They build imaginary worlds by acting out stories from different points of view, and in playful interactions with objects, actions and events. Somehow magically, the bear toy is thought of as if it was alive, an empty cup as if containing tea, and your child as the best cook ever.

Children with autism find it difficult to show or engage in pretend play. For instance, when provided with toys most children with autism are interested in particular items or the physical properties of the items (e.g. whether doll’s head can be turned all the way around) rather than using them in an imaginary way. In cases where children show some forms of pretend play these are less complex, less varied and frequent than those of children without autism. Also, children with autism are less likely to share their play with others or to be interested in peers.

We embrace the belief that children on the spectrum find it difficult to show acts of pretend play because they don’t know how to pretend playfully, rather than that they are not capable. As a result, if they are not supported to show pretend play, they will not be able to show pretend play.

Unlike typically developing children who show acts of pretend play freely, children with autism need to be encouraged. One way to do that is to make the process of pretence explicit and to provide them with opportunities for discovering it. However, methods to encourage pretend play in children with autism are very rare, compared to those focused on social and communication skills. It is curious that even though learning through (pretend) play is known to be beneficial for children, this is forgotten when it comes to children with special needs. Most often, play and work appear to be regarded as totally separate. Not to mention that teaching becomes more pleasant and children learn best when they are enjoying themselves and having fun.

Screenshot 2015-12-09 00.00.42Using technology to support pretending. Lately, technology has gained increasing attention, especially in the field of education, as a result of being particularly appealing for young children and adolescents with autism.  Technology-specific benefits include: predictability, reusability, the opportunity to personalise learning, the chance to repeat activities, and a safe learning environment, etc. Moreover, the diverse and developmental nature of autism make it impossible to find a “one-size-fits-all” support: a variety is needed to cover the various profiles of people with autism. Technology-based supports are suggested to serve as alternatives or complements to existing traditional learning strategies. Technology is regarded as having potential in providing ways for people with autism to develop their skills, rather than as a replacement for human interaction.

In respect to pretend play, there is a very limited number of technology-based supports for its development in children with autism. Since the ‘90s, it has been repeatedly found that if prompted, children with autism are capable to show pretend play. In recent research, modern technology (i.e. augmented reality) was used as prompts for eliciting pretend play in children with autism. The results of this work provide supporting evidence for the potential of technology for such causes. However, this research is at the beginning. Very little is known about how such technology-based prompts should be designed to best support children and those working with them in promoting pretend play.

What are the aims of this project? This project aims to further explore the design of technology-based prompts and their effects on pretend play in children with autism. We want to better understand how young children with autism respond to such technology-based prompts. Also, we are interested to explore how such technology should be designed for supporting pretend play at home (or in school) with children with autism.                                       Specifically, this project aims to answer the following questions:

  • How is pretend play promoted in current practices with children with autism?
  • What type of prompts and prompt-fading strategies are or could be used to promote pretend play in children with autism in practice?
  • How should technology be designed to prompt pretend play in children with autism?
  • What are the effects of using such technology in pretend play with children with autism?

Where are we now? The project is structured in five stages. At the first stage of this project, where we find ourselves now, we are seeking to work with professionals that have experience in promoting pretend play in children with autism (e.g. practitioners that use the playboxes intervention).

The aim at this stage is to observe how professionals support young children with autism in pretend play. Such studies will help us understand better things like: the types of support that adults provide, the use of toys and the role of narrative in pretend play. Besides, it will allow us to explore how technology may be harnessed to support children as well as adults working with them in promoting pretend play.

What else will the project involve? Using the findings of the first stage, next, we want to know more about the prompts practitioners, parents and teachers use in pretend play with children with autism. To ensure the learning of a new skill it is often considered it is not enough to provide children with prompts but also to fade those prompts. These are called prompt-fading strategies. At the third stage of this project we will be looking to find out more about the prompt-fading strategies education professionals and parents use in pretend play with children with autism.

Based on the outcomes of the previous steps, at the fourth stage we will invite education professionals, parents and design experts to work together on designing technology-based prompts and prompting-strategies for promoting pretend play in children with autism.
At the last step of this project the aim is to explore the effects of technology-based prompts and prompt-fading strategies with children with autism.

If you think this research is of interest or/and you would like to get involved (by taking part in the project studies or provide feedback/comments) please contact

Who is conducting/running it? This research is being led by me, Mihaela Dragomir, as part of my PhD project, under the supervision of Helen Pain, Sue Fletcher-Watson and John Lee, at Edinburgh University.

Who is funding this project? The project is made possible thanks to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) Award.

If you have any questions or comments about this project please don’t hesitate to get in touch.