Monday, May 18, 2009

Play & Imagination in Children With Autism, Second Edition

Play & Imagination in Children With Autism, Second Edition, by Paula J. Wolfberg, is a fairly interesting book in a variety of ways. Based on the author's doctoral thesis, it describes something called the "Integrated Play Groups" model, a method of teaching play skills to autistic children.

I won't comment on the details of the program, in large part because of the fact that I haven't had enough time to read through that in enough detail to comment overmuch... and I have to return the book today, so I won't get to.

Besides which, there are things more important than the mechanics which need to be commented on.

Methodologically, the book is on shakey ground. The model was developed by longitudinal study of three autistic individuals -- hardly the best method in terms of external validity! Additionally, diagnostic standards are not provided (and details of diagnosis procedures aren't, either), weakening the external validity of the book's proceedures even further.

Additional challenges to the internal validity of the research methods used (which were purely ethnographic in nature) lead me to conclude that Ms. Wolfberg is an educator and not a scientist. As she's a (associate) professor of special education and not of psychology, this should not be a surprise.

That isn't to say that she doesn't provide emperical support -- it's just in the form of citations. As I'm not familiar with the papers in question (or the book chapter -- chapter 7 if the link doesn't take you directly to it), I cannot comment any further on that. The fact remains, however, that the book focuses more on three case studies using the model than on emperically supporting the model. This is more of a "how to" book than a presentation of research... and it shows.

The largest flaw in the book, however, is not any of the above. The justification for teaching neurotypical play styles, as presented in the book, is highly flawed.

In essence, the book reasons, "autistic children don't spontaneously engage in neurotypical play. Neurotypical children learn a lot from neurotypical play. As such, we need to teach autistic children to engage in neurotypical play so that they can learn the things that neurotypical kids do from neurotypical play."

Of course, the book doesn't use those terms. Beyond the consistant use of "person-first" language (something that can be considered quite rude given the autistic community's repeated expressions of a contrary preference), the author does not use the term "neurotypical play", instead simply chosing to present a definition of the word "play" that explicitly excludes autistic play styles.

The problem with this sort of reasoning is the fact that autistic and neurotypical children have distinct (and distinctly different) learning styles and developmental patterns. As such, it cannot be assumed that autistic children, even if they were to play in the same manner as neurotypical children, would gain the same things from doing so.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the definition of "play" provided manges to exclude autistic play styles through the simple expedient of being so thoroughly contrived as to exclude many common neurotypical play activities, both here in America and internationally.

Put another way, not all play has a nonliteral orientation (c.f. p. 30). There are additional problems with how the text defines play as "flexible and changing" (p. 29), because neither "flexible" nor "changing" is a dichotomous attribue. Besides, the popular game of taking a Slinky to the top of a staircase and watching it "slink" down manages to violate both of these rules (as written) while still remaining an activity that is generally regarded as play. Similarly, the fact that most autistic play styles have more in common with the Slinky or with dominoes than with neurotypical pretend play is not a reason to dismiss them from consideration as play activities.

Moreover, the reflexive dismissal of autistic play styles as "stereotyped activity" (p. 29) because they do not share certain elements of neurotypical play styles also dismisses the issue of the role autistic play styles play in the development of autistic children.

In short, the justification is extremely weak... and this is not a minor thing. The number of ethical issues that come into play is mind-boggling. Because of these problems, I cannot reccommend this book in anything approaching good conscience.

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