HealthDay News — Children with autism appear to approach play differently than typically developing children, a recent study contends.

In the new study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers conducted a series of experiments with 42 children, aged 8 to 12, who either had an autism spectrum disorder or were typically developing. The investigators collected samples of cortisol, a stress hormone, from the children’s saliva before and after playing on the playground with another child.

“The arousal level of the children with autism during play suggests that interaction with peers can be quite stressful,” said study co-author Blythe Corbett, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “In this study, we also found a relationship between brain activity during play, behavior and stress level.”

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All of the children underwent brain scans while playing a computer game in which they believed they were playing a real person half the time and a computer the other half.

“Typical children showed vast differences based on play with human versus computer partners,” she added. “While we know that children with autism have difficulty with social play, the current study showed that the brain patterns of children with autism spectrum disorders activate similar brain regions regardless of whether they are playing with a child they met or playing with a computer partner.”

Corbett said that the play of children with autism tends to be more repetitive and more focused on computers, videos and technology than on engagement with other children.

For children with autism, some social-skills programs with peers might help increase interest in social play while reducing stress, she suggested.


Corbett BA, et al. Neural and cortisol responses during play with human and computer partners in children with autism. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014; doi: 10.1093/scan/nsu159.