The intersubjective motives of play: The case of autism.

Despoina Papoudi

Research output: Contribution to journalSpecial issuepeer-review

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A deficit in spontaneous or self-generated play, particularly in what is conceived as ‘symbolic’ or representational play, has been identified as core deficit of young children with autism. Most empirical research on the behavior of children with autism has relied on tests of their cognitive development as individual thinkers who must learn to recognize conventional meanings. This leads to the special attention given to ‘symbolic’ play, while socio-emotional or relational functions of play are left unattended.
In contrast, developmental research with typically developing children brings abundant evidence that inter-personal relatedness depends on mutual awareness of intentions with feelings between the child and other persons, with shared joy in purposeful movement, and that affectionate sharing is an essential element of play from birth prior to the capacity for meta-representation of experiences. In early infancy an emotional ‘primary intersubjectivity’ regulates playful ‘proto-conversations’ with voice and gesture, before sharing of imaginative actions in games and tasks, which is a prerequisite for later development of the cognitive abilities of language and story-telling that specify arbitrary meanings.
Taking in mind the evidence on the shared enjoyment of play by typically developing children, and its contribution to the invention of shared meanings, we explore comparable studies with children with autism to bring new light to our understanding of what is atypical in the developmental pathway that might lead to problems with interpersonal awareness, intimate relationships, and with mastery of representational skills.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202
Number of pages239
JournalElefterna, Scientific Journal, Special Issue: Intersubjective Paths to Interpersonal Relationships and Learning.
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2015


  • intersubjectivity
  • play
  • Autism
  • symbolic play


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