Joint Attention and Symbolic Play

Social Communication and Symbolic Play Intervention for Preschoolers with Autismgirl bubbles

Funded by the National Center for Special Education Research
Institute of Education Sciences (R324B07056)

Principal Investigators:

Linda R. Watson, Ed.D., Associate Professor, Division of Speech & Hearing Sciences
Brian A. Boyd, Ph.D., Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute

Elizabeth R. Crais, Ph.D., Division of Speech & Hearing Sciences
Grace T. Baranek, Ph.D., Division of Occupational Science
Sam Odum, Ph.D., Director of
Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute

Sally Flagler
Connie Kasari, Ph.D.

Project Coordinator: Heidi McGuinn Duncombe
Research Assistant: Tracy Williams Lenhardt

This project is developing an intervention program for use by public school personnel to improve social communication and symbolic play skills in preschoolers with autism in public school settings. Our final products will include an intervention manual as well as a DVD with video demonstrations of the intervention program. In addition, we are conducting a series of three small studies in collaboration with the Wake County Public School System to determine whether (1) school personnel consider the intervention program feasible and useful, and (2) children who participate in the intervention improve their social-communication and play skills.

Our intervention program has two primary content components: Joint Attention and Symbolic Play. Thus, we refer to this project as the JASP project. Joint attention is the social communicative behaviors that people use to share their interests in the objects and activities in their environment. For instance, if a child is interested in an airplane flying overhead, points to the plane, and looks at his father to see if his father is also noticing the plane, the child is engaging in joint attention. Symbolic play is also known as pretend play, and involves a range of “make-believe” activities such as pretending to drink from an empty cup, pretending a triangular shaped block is a piece of pizza, or pretending to be a fierce lion. Joint attention and symbolic play are especially challenging for young children with autism to learn; however, previous research by Dr. Connie Kasari and her colleagues at UCLA has demonstrated that it is possible to teach these skills to preschoolers with autism, and that children who are taught these key skills develop better language skills over the next year (and possibly more) following the intervention. Language skills are important for success in school, interpersonal relationships, and eventually, independent living. 

The JASP project also has two primary context components: one-to-one intervention and classroom group activities. The one-to-one intervention component provides more intensive teaching and opportunities for children to practice new social communication and play skills, whereas the classroom group activities provide opportunities for children to generalize their skills to new activities and to use them with peers as well as with adults.

We are using an iterative process to develop JASP that initially included focus groups of key school personnel, and school personnel reviews of drafts of our intervention manual. As we implement three successive versions of the JASP program in the Wake County Public Schools, we will continue to revise the program based on user feedback, our formal and informal evaluations of the implementation, and student outcome data.        

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