When human beings see a face and socially engage with another human, whether it’s a stranger or loved one, we get a hit of the feel-good chemicals oxytocin and dopamine. It’s fleeting and subconscious a lot of the time, but it reinforces us to seek out and enjoy that face again.
This isn’t the case for the majority of people with autism spectrum disorder. So why do we try to make children with autism fit into our “neurotypical” social world and follow our often complicated social rules?
Just not as interested in socialising with or pleasing others
For a long time researchers have been investigating children with autism’s Theory of Mind skills. These include looking from other perspectives and reading facial expressions.
It has been assumed children with autism have developmental deficits that make it difficult to read people and their emotions. However, autism is on a spectrum ranging from high-functioning and brilliantly intelligent to low-functioning non-verbal individuals, so this is inconsistent.
For a long time neurotypical (short for “neurologically typical”, which is a term originating in the autistic community as a label for people who are not on the autism spectrum) researchers have been desperate to know why children with autism usually do not to attend to faces or consider other people’s perspectives.
We’re a social species; we’ve evolved to form deep connections with others and experience pleasure from doing so. Our eyes orient towards faces minutes after we’re born, and this is the beginning of our human face fascination.
An idea has been proposed and it’s wonderfully simple. The Expertise Hypothesis posits that those with autism do not have specific abnormalities or problems with brain functions that underpin emotion recognition and social interaction, but they just have not developed these skills at an expert level like most “normal” people. This is due to their inherent lack of interest in socialising with most individuals.
I’m sure that parents of autistic children could explain in great detail how difficult it is for them to get their child to do something they don’t want to do. Unlike typically developing children who crave praise, affection and acceptance, and are willing to perform tasks they don’t enjoy to receive them, children with autism are much more egocentric. Of course this doesn’t mean that children with autism are void of feelings, empathy or love, they are just less interested in pleasing others.
Rewards for social behaviour
This reluctance to engage socially and take on another’s perspective has resulted in observed incompetence in a simple Theory of Mind test where a child has to answer this conundrum correctly:
Sally has a basket and Ann has a box. Sally places a marble in the basket, then leaves. Ann moves Sally’s marble to the box. When Sally returns, where will she look for her marble?
The majority of children and adolescents with autism fail this test and say she will look in the box, while most typically developing five-year-olds answer correctly.
However, a slightly altered version of the test offering a reward (such as a chocolate or toy) for the correct answer was conducted on Australian children with autism and the results were drastically improved.
While only 13% of the children passed the aforementioned Sally-Anne test, 74% answered the reward-driven question correctly. This demonstrates that many children with autism who fail social engagement experiments can use their Theory of Mind to track other people’s beliefs in a competitive and reward-based game.
This is not like real life
The unfortunate thing about life is that no-one gives you a reward every time you successfully engage in human interaction. So why are we spending hundreds of hours in therapy with autistic children offering them rewards for eye contact or a verbal back-and-forth, when the suggested reason they don’t do it naturally is because they don’t intrinsically need or enjoy it?
We’re training these children to fit into our neurotypical world where interaction is incredibly confusing. The slightest intonation in one’s voice, or raise of an eyebrow can leave an individual questioning the communicator’s intentions. The difference between a neurotypical and an autistic person is that a neurotypical brain is actually interested in figuring that interaction out.
People with autism tend not to care. So why should they? We shouldn’t attempt to force people with autism into our practices regardless of whether they want to be a part of them or not.
Half of adults with autism report having no particular friends, yet greater loneliness is either not reported or bears little relation to the individual’s actual degree of social involvement.
Research suggests people with autism place less emphasis on preserving their reputation or the impressions they leave. It is often these types of people who will advance society because they aren’t scared to suggest new ideas and stand out from the crowd in fear of embarrassment or ostracism.
Holly Warland does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: The Conversation