A study shows that playing with dolls could promote the social development of children – including children with autism.
Researchers at Cardiff University found that children with autism traits showed increased brain activity related to social processing when they engaged in conversation during puppet shows.
It suggests that broader social engagement with others in puppetry is a unique route to these children’s social development, they said.
Neurotypical children were more likely to discuss the dolls’ thoughts and feelings.
The researchers said that despite this difference, both groups could potentially benefit from puppetry by using it as a tool for practicing social scenarios and developing social skills.
The lead researcher Dr. Sarah Gerson said: “Our study shows that puppetry can promote social processing in children, regardless of their neurodevelopmental profile.”
“The results show that all children, including those who exhibit neurodivergent characteristics commonly associated with autism, can use puppetry as a tool for practicing social scenarios and developing social skills such as empathy.”
Around 700,000 children and adults in the UK are autistic, with more than one percent of all Brits on the autism spectrum.
Autism means that people may find it harder to communicate and interact with others, or have difficulty understanding how other people think or feel.
Bright lights and loud noises can be overwhelming, stressful or unpleasant, and unfamiliar situations and social events can cause anxiety or excitement in autistic people.
It’s not a condition or an illness – it means that people’s brains work differently than neurotypical people, and it’s something you have throughout your life.
The latest research results come from a multi-year study by the Center for Human Developmental Science at the university’s Faculty of Psychology.
Recent years have focused on neurotypical children and have found widespread social and developmental benefits of playing with dolls.
Now in its third year, the research team has replicated these results with a broader range of participants, including children between the ages of four and eight who have both high and low levels of traits associated with autism.
Using state-of-the-art functional near-infrared spectroscopy equipment, brain activation was examined while children played with dolls and on tablets, both alone and with another person, replicating conditions from the first year of the study.
By observing children playing with dolls, both during play with a social partner and during solo puppetry, researchers found increased brain activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) region, which is heavily involved in social and emotional processing such as empathy is involved, but less so when playing solo tablets.
The study’s results suggest that puppetry could support social processing regardless of a child’s neurodevelopmental profile, but in different ways.
For children who showed fewer autistic traits in the study, talking about the mental states and emotions of the dolls they played with was associated with increased pSTS activity.
In contrast, talking to others during puppetry, even when playing alone, led to greater social processing at the neural level in individuals with more autistic traits.
Other research has shown that social processing and empathy skills are important factors in children’s future emotional, academic and social success.
The study was a collaboration with the Wales Autism Research Centre.
Your director Dr. Catherine Jones said: “The study highlights how important it is that we recognize and value neurodiversity.
“This means recognizing and valuing the diverse functioning of children’s brains and approaching social development in a way that is inclusive and accommodating for all children, regardless of their neurodivergence.”
“By embracing all types of children’s play, we can create a more inclusive and supportive environment for their development.”
Since the groundbreaking publication of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the effects of play have been thought to have a positive impact on children’s social skills and creativity. However, this has never been scientifically proven at the brain level.
The multi-year long-term study commissioned by Barbie is the first time that important Piaget theories on play have been scientifically proven using brain imaging techniques.
It is also the first company to use imaging techniques in natural puppetry, meaning there was no prescribed storyline showing how the brain is activated during puppetry.
Michael Swaisland, head of EMEA of insight and analytics at Mattel, said: “We are proud to know that children’s playtime, regardless of their neurodevelopmental profile, can benefit their development when they play with Barbie.”
“As Barbie continues to awaken the limitless potential of every child, we are excited to learn through neuroscience that play with dolls can promote the development of social skills such as empathy in children, including those who exhibit neurodivergent characteristics commonly associated with autism be connected.”
“We look forward to discovering even more benefits of puppetry through our long-term partnership with Cardiff University, as we aim to shed light on the developmental benefits of the play pattern that parents may not have been aware of.”
Parents and caregivers can visit here to learn more about the research and access resources.