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Jun 082011

As I mentioned in the last post, a major theme of autism spectrum differences is the arena of socially relating to others. So in today’s post I would like to discuss what this difference may look like. Please keep in mind the “spectrum” part of autism spectrum disorders. That means that one person might have one of the differences, and one person might have another, but that altogether their pattern of differences might be given the same name.

Nonverbal communication

So, someone who has autistic characteristics in the area of social relationships may have differences in their use of nonverbal body language. Eye contact may be minimal or not well meshed or modulated with other aspects of communication. I remember one teen I knew who would make eye contact, but would stare fixedly into my eyes, because she was trying to follow the instructions she had been given in prior treatment to make eye contact. The person may not show a wide range of facial expressions. I have seen some people with ASDs whose affect is quite flat, that is, they rarely show any expression at all. More commonly, I have seen people with ASDs who show one or two emotions with their facial expressions (such as happy and mad) but not many others. This flatness of expression is often misinterpreted as an absence of emotion, which is frequently not the case. However, it can also be accompanied by difficulty with verbal expression of internal experience, again making it appear to others as if emotion is absent, when for many it is just experienced without the facial expressions and without an easy ability to describe that feeling with words. Another aspect seen in facial expressions are unusual expressions or grimaces being made, often without awareness of how others might (mis)interpret these expressions. Some people on the spectrum use few gestures when talking or telling a story. That is they may not use their hands when they talk, and may rarely nod or shake their head. Young children on the spectrum may not point at things to share their enjoyment about what they see with another person, or they may not raise their arms to show they want to be picked up.

Lack of peer relationships

Another way that social relationships differ is in when peer relationships have not developed in the expected manner. People on the spectrum may be “loners” or described by others as “geeks” or “nerds” (for more on this, check out one of my favorite books: Freaks, Geeks, and Asperger’s Syndrome by Luke Jackson, who was a teen when he wrote this). ASD children might mostly play alone and rarely be invited to play with others, or play only with younger or older children. Or they may make friends but have difficulty keeping them. I have seen some children on the spectrum make one best friend who they would be willing to be loyal to until the end of time, and then become devastated they learn about the changeable nature of peer relationships.

Not sharing enjoyment

Children on the spectrum may not get enjoyment from sharing what they are doing with others, and so may not show or point out objects of interest, and as part of this may show no interest in what others are doing or what others are interested in. Some may not find praise meaningful (although I only occasionally see this), and some may be very undemanding of attention and are content to play “in their own world.”

Lack of reciprocity

Lastly a person on the spectrum may not show social or emotional “reciprocity.” That is, they may not reciprocate as expected during social or emotional exchanges. Some examples are: poor empathy (that is difficulty with intuitively understanding the feelings of others), not being aware of others or the needs of others, not actively participating in social play or games, or involving others in activities only as tools. People on the spectrum may not be aware of peer pressure, fads or fashions and they may not be aware of social norms. Those on the spectrum frequently struggle with being a member of a sports team, and may have difficulty in groups or group projects. They may not offer comfort if someone else is in distress in some way. Social relationships for some on the autism spectrum are instrumental in nature, that is, based on meeting their own needs and not reciprocated by meeting the needs of the other person. ASD individuals may have difficulty with taking the perspective of another. When their behavior is observed by someone who is neurotypical, they may appear rude, unfriendly, or overly blunt, even though their is generally no intention to hurt another (just perhaps no specific intention not to!). ASD children may prefer relationships with adults rather than peers. You may see that for some on the spectrum their relationships may be based on special interests only, and they may have great difficulty with losing a game.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the characteristics that involve language and imagination.

Question: What have you seen regarding this difference in social relationships?


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