This research project explored the connections between play, story, and pretence with regard to many cultural and contextual factors that influence the way these elements vary in children’s lives.

In a departure from earlier collections on play and story, the authors take a particular focus on normative as compared with atypical development. The project examined the differing abilities of typically developing children and children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to engage in pretend play with others – and construct intersubjectivity in dialogue by so doing. The Investigators of this project have found that it is not that the children with ASD are unable to engage in pretend play, but the nature of their meta-discourse about the play differs from typically developing children.

This research examines the differing abilities of typically developing children and those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to engage in pretend play and tell stories. Pretend play is the collaboration with others to create a pretend world – where a ball may be an apple or a pen a banana – as opposed to functional play such as sports. This kind of play becomes sophisticated, significant, and collaborative during the preschool years. It is an important developmental skill for language acquisition, cognitive development, and socialisation.

The chief investigators are Professor Lesley Stirling and Dr Susan Douglas of the School of Languages and Linguistics. They have worked in partnership with Professor Cheryl Dissanayake of the Olga Tennison Centre for Autism Research at La Trobe University, who provided much valuable data.

Professor Stirling has worked on autism and communication for a decade. Dr Douglas studied the development of verbs in autistic children for her PhD and then worked with Professor Stirling on an ARC Discovery Project on children’s storytelling in ASD. This background provided the basis for the research into pretend play.

Dr Douglas held a Faculty of Arts postdoctoral fellowship between 2010-2013 to facilitate further study. She had accumulated videotaped interactive data of children playing for her PhD and collected further data for her postdoctoral research. This was complemented by data from Professor Dissanayake, in which children had engaged in pretend play in the laboratory setting.

This research challenges assumptions and the conclusions are significant. “The standard story was that kids with ASD can’t do pretend play and can’t conceive of pretend worlds”, explains Assoc. Professor Stirling. “We now know they can do it, they can enjoy it, and it’s not so much the pretending itself that’s an issue; it’s the metacommunication with the play partner that’s a problem.” This is an issue of social communication where the children are less willing to allow their play partner to take a full role in framing the play, and where they have difficulty switching between the external world and the play world.

Stirling and Douglas’s findings will enable carers of children with ASD to understand better why interaction with those children differs from that with others, and how to engage them more effectively. In particular, children with ASD are best engaged from within the play frame – that is, engaging them in character.

A major outcome of this research is a forthcoming book via Routledge, Children’s Play, Pretense, and Story: Studies in Culture, Context, and ASD, edited by Douglas and Stirling. It comprises a collection of papers invited after an interdisciplinary conference was held in July 2011 with Faculty funding.

As for the future, Professor Stirling explains that this is “an ongoing research programme looking at discourse analysis and communication in ASD, and there are lots of different directions we can take that”. She is now looking at whether older children with ASD can conceive of alternative or hypothetical scenarios in specific situations, especially in discussing school problems such as bullying.


Languages and Linguistics



Chief investigators

  • Professor Lesley Stirling, Semantics and Descriptive Linguistics, School of Languages and Linguistics, the University of Melbourne
  • Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, Founding Director and inaugural Olga Tennison Chair in Autism Research, Autism Research Centre, School of Psychology and Public Health, La Trobe University