Background: Delays and deficits in joint attention and symbolic play constitute two important developmental problems in young children with autism. These areas of deficit have been well studied in autism but have rarely been the focus of treatment efforts (see Kasari, Freeman, & Paparella, 2001). In this study, we examine the efficacy of targeted interventions of joint attention and symbolic play.
Methods: Participants were 58 children with autism aged 3 and 4 years (46 boys). Children were randomized to a joint attention intervention, a symbolic play intervention, or control group. Interventions were conducted 30 minutes daily for 5–6 weeks. Both structured assessments of joint attention and play skills and mother–child interactions were collected pre and post intervention by independent assessors.
Results: Results indicate that both intervention groups improved significantly over the control group on certain behaviors. Children in the joint attention intervention initiated significantly more showing and responsiveness to joint attention on the structured joint attention assessment and more child-initiated joint attention in the mother–child interaction. The children in the play group showed more diverse types of symbolic play in interaction with their mothers and higher play levels on both the play assessment and in interaction with their mothers.
Conclusions: This randomized controlled trial provides promising data on the specificity and generalizability of joint attention and play interventions for young children with autism. Future studies need to examine the long-term effects of these early interventions on children's development.