Dolls Can Help Nurodivergent Children Develop Social Skills and Emotions, study Shows

In Education

Cardiff University neuroscientists have discovered that doll play can be beneficial for children with diverse social communication styles, including those with neurodivergent traits often linked to autism.

Doll play linked social processing in autistic children

In a Mattel-commissioned long-term study, researchers observed the brain activity of 57 children (ages 4 to 8) with different levels of autistic traits. Led by Dr. Sarah Gerson and Dr. Catherine Jones from Cardiff University, researchers used advanced near-infrared spectroscopy equipment to examine brain activation during children’s interactions with dolls and tablets, both individually and with others.

The study discovered that doll play, whether done alone or in a group, is connected to brain activity related to social processing in children, both those without and with high autistic traits levels. This reinforces prior research indicating that playing with dolls stimulates brain regions linked to social skills and empathy, facilitating children in discussing others’ thoughts and emotions.

According to Dr. Gerson, their research indicates that engaging in doll play can promote the development of social processing abilities in children, irrespective of their neurodevelopmental characteristics. Dr. Gerson adds that the results propose that doll play could serve as a valuable means for children, including those exhibiting neurodivergent traits often linked with autism, to hone their social competencies, including empathy, by simulating various social situation.

Dolls enhance brain activity

The recent study replicated the conditions of Year One research and assessed children with various autistic traits. During observations, researchers noticed increased brain activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) region when children played with dolls, both with a social partner and alone, but less so during tablet play. The pSTS region is linked to social and emotional processing.

These findings suggest that doll play activates brain regions associated with social information processing and empathy, potentially helping children practice these skills even when playing alone. This effect was consistent across children with varying degrees of autism-related traits.

This research aims to encompass the diversity of traits within autism spectrum in children, emphasizing that doll play is linked to thinking about others, regardless of specific traits.

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