A Peek into How Kids with Autism Experience Social Situations
Kids with autism tend to have more difficulty interacting socially than their typically developing peers. It’s a fact that gets bandied about a lot, disguising the range — spectrum — of autistic experiences and, perhaps, creating assumptions about how children on the spectrum experience the world around them.
Historically, clinicians and scientists have proposed a variety of theories to explain why kids with autism tend to be less socially communicative than their typically developing peers. One popular theory suggests kids with autism aren’t intrinsically motivated to interact with other people because they aren’t neurologically “rewarded” by social interactions the same way most people are.
“Most of us get a hit of dopamine when we interact with other people, whether it’s through making eye contact or sharing something good that’s happened to us — it feels good to be social,” explains Katherine Stavropoulos, a professor of special education and director of the SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center at the University of California, Riverside. “The social motivation hypothesis says kids with autism don’t get that same [biological] reward from social interaction, so they don’t go out of their way to engage with people because it’s not rewarding for them.”
A second theory posits that because kids with autism interpret sensory cues more intensely than their typical peers, they tend to shy away from additional stimulation in the form of interactions they perceive as overwhelming or aversive.
“Kids with autism often find noises too loud or lights too bright, or they find them not intense enough,” Stavropoulos says. “Most of us wouldn’t want to talk to someone whom we perceive as screaming, especially in a room that was already too bright, with ambient noise that was already too loud.” So, this theory holds, kids with autism withdraw from hyper-stimulating socialization as a self-soothing behavior.
But Stavropoulos, a licensed clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience, says a combination of both theories is most accurate. Stavropoulos led a team in studying the neural activity of 43 children between the ages of 7 and 10 — 23 of whom were typical and 20 of whom had autism spectrum disorder — during a guessing game-style simulation that provided participants with both social and nonsocial rewards. Their results, published this week in the journal Molecular Autism, provide a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes brain functions that determine how kids with autism perceive social interaction.
“We structured the game so that the kids would pick an answer, and then there would be a brief pause,” Stavropoulos said. “It was during that pause that the kids would begin to wonder, ‘Did I get it?’ and we could observe them getting excited; the more rewarding something is to a person, the more that anticipation builds.”
Each participant played two versions of the game. While the questions were the same in both, in one version, kids who chose the right answer saw a smiling face, and kids who chose the wrong answer saw a sad, frowning face. In the other version, the faces were scrambled and reformed in the shapes of arrows pointing up to denote correct answers and down to denote incorrect ones.
In both the anticipatory stage and reward stage, Stavropoulos’s team compared the patterns of firing neurons in each kid’s brain, mapping their immediate cognitive responses. They found that typical kids anticipated social rewards — that is, the pictures of faces — more strongly than kids with autism. Kids with severe autism were more likely to anticipate the nonsocial arrow-shaped rewards.
And in the aftermath of both games, researchers observed more reward-related brain activity in typical children. Kids with autism, however, had more activity in attention-related regions of the brain, a difference that suggests attempts to cope and focus in a state of sensory overload, Stavropoulos says. Kids with severe autism also showed heightened general brain responsiveness to positive social feedback (smiling faces), which Stavropoulos said may also indicate sensory overload.
In other words, kids with autism aren’t as naturally motivated to engage with other people, and their extra sensitivity to the ‘white noise’ of a social experience, which most people are able to block out unconsciously, may make them even less inclined to engage. But Stavropoulos says her findings aren’t meant to paint a stereotypical picture of autism and antisocial awkwardness.
“Kids with autism might not be as rewarded by social interactions as typically developing kids are, but that doesn’t mean their reward systems are entirely broken,” she added. Instead, she says, it means family and therapists must find ways to help kids with autism find value in social interaction — which might be easier to do when these kids’ extraordinary sensory experiences are given consideration, too.
“It’s a delicate balance between making social interactions rewarding while being aware of how loudly we speak, how excited our voices sound, and how bright the lights are,” she explains.