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Play and Autism

In no evaluation has a child's meaningful use of language been above his/her cognitive play level...Unless the child possesses the cognitive prerequisites for the linguistic structures she/he is learning, she/he will not use them in actual interpersonal situations. Carol Westby (1980)

Carol Westby is, in our estimation, a brilliant woman who connected language use (aka pragmatic language--a huge deficit in our learners) in children with the development of their symbolic play skills. What she connected, in her assessment of children, is that children's ability to USE language coincides with the emergence of predictable symbolic play schemes. To put it roughly, children don't use language fully until they can play in symbolic ways. She proposed that simple stimulus response paradigms (read ABA without symbolic play development), aren't enough to build the symbolic cognitive skills necessary to promote your learner's full language development. Therefore, teaching language use and symbolic play skills should go hand in hand.

Other things we like about the Westby Scale: We like how she organized her information clearly and briefly by developmental level--the whole scale is two pages long. We like her explanation that play reflects cognitive consciousness (awareness of other's state of minds, etc). It seemed to lend itself to teaching theory of mind (TOM) skills at very early ages.

On a personal note, we have noticed that language development in our learners, including using words to request or demand, label and use of WH-questions (interrogative conversation) can precede symbolic play. Symbolic play and improved social attention skills has preceded acquisition of declarative conversational speech. Our experience has been that the acquistion of symbolic play skills has not in itself caused conversational speech to develop, but it has marked a level of social awareness that allowed teaching of declarative conversation (e.g. I like hotdogs. Not me, I like hamburgers.) to be successful.

Per usual, we are going to highlight what we feel are the most relevant points to be gained from evaluating the Westby Play Scale, and interpret them for you in as jargon-free language as possible. As always, we encourage you to read the original source and draw your own conclusions. The Westby Play Scale is found in the following journal: Westby, C.E. (1980). Assessment of cognitive and language abilities through play. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 11, 154-168, and on pages 303-305 in the book Behavioral Intervention for Young Children with Autism: A Manual for Parents and Professionals. Edited by Maurice, Green and Luce.

The Westby Play Scale (edited and interpreted for relevance)