Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Clinical Psychology

First Advisor

Abbey Eisenhower

Second Advisor

Alice S. Carter

Third Advisor

Laurel Wainwright


Young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) exhibit deficits in spontaneous symbolic play compared to typically developing peers. A set of skills that emerges in typical development around the age of 18 -24 months, the symbolic play of boys and girls with ASD is characterized by being less frequent as well as having a less well-developed level of symbolic representation compared to peers of the same age without ASD, who in comparison engage in more frequent and complex representation of objects and people. Anecdotally, parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of how boys and girls with ASD perform on symbolic play are skewed towards the conclusion that a larger proportion of girls with ASD exhibit typical symbolic play and that they are rated as being more interested in pretend play compared to their male counterparts.

In the current study, the presence and spontaneity of symbolic play skills were examined among 551 children with the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (80.9% boys and 19.1% girls) from the larger ABCD Early Screening Project. The presence and absence of symbolic play as well as the spontaneity of symbolic play - was derived from ratings of children’s play observed during the administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS-2) at the time of their diagnosis. Boys and girls were similar in their age of diagnosis (mean age for boys = 27.6 months, mean age for girls 27.8 months). Expressive language and restrictive and repetitive behaviors (RRB) were each examined as a mediator of the relation between child sex and spontaneity of pretend play. A higher proportion of toddler-aged girls with ASD exhibited symbolic play than toddler-aged boys with ASD (67.6% of girls vs. 54.9% of boys). Likewise, among children who exhibited some symbolic play, spontaneity of play was more common in girls (67.6% of girls vs. 53.9% of boys). Expressive language and RRBs were not found to have significant indirect effects on these associations. As symbolic play has been shown to correlate with developmental functioning, this study has implications for interventions around symbolic play skills especially for boys with ASD.


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