Autism and triadic play: an object lesson in the mutuality of the social and material

Emma I. Williams, Alan Costall, Vasu Reddy

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Children's relations to objects are often seen as operating in a physical, asocial, realm distinct from the sociocultural realm of other people. The most influential theories of autism exemplify this assumption, emphasising problems in relating to other people alongside relatively intact dealings with objects. This paper challenges the notion of a rigid social-material divide. It examines evidence of widespread disruption in the object use of children with autism, alongside developmental ecological and sociocultural research highlighting the mutuality of our relations to people and things, to argue that difficulties in relating to other people should themselves lead us to expect corresponding problems in object use.

In support of this argument findings are presented from an empirical study comparing the triadic (parent-object-infant) play of children with autism (aged 1–6) and their parents to that of developmentally matched typical and Down syndrome dyads. Children's response to parental invitations and the proportion of time each child spent engaged with objects and/or their parents were compared. In contrast to the children in the comparison groups, those with autism were more likely to ignore parental invitations, or be preoccupied with their own use of an object. They also spent less time jointly engaged with their parent and an object and more time unengaged or focussed exclusively on their own use of an object. These findings are discussed in the context of Gibson's concept of affordances to further our understanding of the social mediation of object use in autistic and non-autistic children, and the role unusual child-object relations in autism might play in disrupting on-going interaction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)146-173
Number of pages28
JournalEcological Psychology
Issue number2
Early online date26 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2018


  • RCUK
  • ESRC
  • R000234949


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