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Social Interaction and Autism

Girl with folded armsPeople on the autism spectrum vary enormously from each other but they all have impaired social skills of one kind or another.

Those social skills include social interactions (such as sharing interests with other people), the use of non-verbal communication (such as making eye contact), and the development and maintenance of relationships (such as making friends).

For example, some people on the autism spectrum

  • Are unwilling to make direct eye contact with other people
  • May not respond when their name is called or when they are spoken to
  • Find it difficult to understand other people. For example they may not be able to read facial expressions or body language.
  • Are unaware of social conventions/appropriate social behavior. For example they may not understand the importance of taking turns during a conversation.
  • Are extremely directive and controlling or overly passive. For example, they may insist that everybody has to do what they want.
  • Find it difficult to deal with conflict. For example, they may not understand the difference between being assertive and being aggressive.
  • Are indifferent or averse to physical contact and affection. For example, they may not like being hugged.
  • Don't  share objects (such as toys) and emotions (such as excitement) with other people
  • Express inappropriate emotions (such as laughing or smiling at the wrong time and place.)
  • Prefer solitary activities and do not try to make friends or would like to make friends but don't know how.

Personal Accounts

‘I can remember when I tuned out, I would just sit and rock and let sand go through my hands. I was able to shut the world out.’ (Temple Grandin).

‘School was a torture ground in itself for me because of my lack of social skills and my absolute terror of people, in part because I didn’t just automatically know the social rules, and, when I did lean them, I had to think about them all the time and who can keep up that sort of coping skill all the time? ‘Karen’, (Clare Sainsbury)

“ I’m in my mid fifties, I live alone, abhor ‘company’. I only leave the house when absolutely necessary, and wont have anyone in my house, even siblings and family, so I only ever see them outside. However, I’m intelligent (I have an IQ above 150) and studied for a degree in History at Cambridge as a mature student.” (Source: personal correspondence to Research Autism from someone who wishes to remain anonymous, received February 2008).

Statistics

Impaired social skills occur in everybody on the autism spectrum but not everyone with a diagnosis of autism will have the same social problems.

Even individuals with the same form of autism may have less severe social problems than others with the same diagnosis.

Causes

There are various theories as to why people on the autism spectrum have impaired social skills. Some people think poor social skills may be caused by

  • a failure of affective processing
  • a failure to develop a “theory of mind”, which prevents the individual from understanding what other people are thinking or feeling
  • weakness or absence of the social gaze response
  • memory dysfunction, such as deficits in memory for faces and common social scenes, which prevent the individual from remembering other people or events
  • other problems, such as sensory distractions, which prevent an individual from concentrating on social issues

Effects

Social difficulties affect each individual on the autism spectrum (and their family and careers) in a different way. For example some people on the autism spectrum

  • are unable or unwilling to form relationships with anyone else, including close relatives or carers
  • are unable or unwilling to take part in social activities, such as playing/working with other people
  • may face discrimination because of their inability to get on with other people, which can in turn lead to other problems such as bullying, lack of employment

Best Practice

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has produced clinical guidance on the management and support of people on the autism spectrum.

This includes clinical guidance on the core features of autism, including difficulties with social interaction.

Further information:

Studies and Reviews

This page provides details of some of the most significant scientific studies and reviews on social interaction and autism.

You can find other studies and reviews on social interaction in our publications database.

If you know of any other studies we should include please email info@researchautism.net with the details. Thank you.

Please note that we are unable to supply publications unless we are listed as the publisher. However, if you are a UK resident you may be able to obtain them from your local public library, your college library or direct from the publisher.

Related Studies and Reviews


Other Reading

This section provides details of other publications on social interaction, autism and related issues.

You can find more publications on social interaction in our publications database.

If you know of any other publications we should include please email info@researchautism.net with the details..

Please note that we are unable to supply publications unless we are listed as the publisher. However, if you are a UK resident you may be able to obtain them from your local public library, your college library or direct from the publisher.


Related Other Reading


Additional Information

NICE Guidance for Adults on the Autism Spectrum

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Evidence makes the following recommendations re the treatment of social interaction difficulties in adults on the autism spectrum.

'For adults with autism without a learning disability or with a mild to moderate learning disability, who have identified problems with social interaction, consider:

  • a group-based social learning programme focused on improving social interaction
  • an individually delivered social learning programme for people who find group-based activities difficult.'

'Social learning programmes to improve social interaction should typically include:

  • modelling
  • peer feedback (for group-based programmes) or individual feedback (for individually delivered programmes)
  • discussion and decision-making
  • explicit rules
  • suggested strategies for dealing with socially difficult situations.'

Source:Autism: recognition, referral, diagnosis and management of adults on the autism spectrum (2012). London: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Read Full Item (New Window)


NICE Guidance for Children and Young People on the Autism Spectrum

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Evidence makes the following recommendations re the treatment of core features (such as communication difficulties) of autism in children and young people.

'Consider a social-communication intervention for the management of the core features of autism in children and young people. For pre-school children consider delivering the intervention with parent, carer or teacher mediation. For school-aged children consider delivering the intervention with peer mediation.

'A social-communication intervention should include training for parents, carers and teachers in strategies for increasing joint attention and reciprocal communication, using techniques such as video-feedback methods. Such strategies should

  • be appropriate for the child or young person's developmental level and sensitive and responsive to their patterns of communication and interaction
  • include techniques of modelling and feedback
  • include techniques to expand communication, interactive play and social routines'

Source: The management and support of children and young people on the autism spectrum. (2013). London: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Full item (Open in New Window)

Related Additional Information


Updated
01 Nov 2017