Symbolic play and language comprehension in autistic children

Judy A. Ungerer*, Marian Sigman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

195 Citations (Scopus)


The objectives of this study were to examine the play of young autistic children and to determine the relationship between play and language comprehension in this group. Structured and free play assessments and a test of receptive language were administered to a sample of 16 autistic children with a mean mental age of 24.8 months. The autistic children demonstrated a wide range of different play behaviors, but their play was different from the play observed in normal children of comparable mental age. They distributed their play time differently from normals by spending equal amounts of time in immature and mature forms of play. In addition, they directed less play activity toward dolls. Autistic children with high language comprehension demonstrated more functional and symbolic play and longer sequences of meaningfully integrated play acts than autistic children with low language comprehension. The results indicated that deviance in the early symbolic development of autistic children is manifest in their functional use oiObjects in play. Impairments in play were related to language comprehension, supporting the notion of a generalized symbolic impairment in autistic children.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)318-337
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1981

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