Social Behavior in Autism


Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon

One of the most characteristic symptoms of autism is a dysfunction in social behavior. Numerous reports written by parents and researchers have described this problem, and it is thought by many to be the key defining feature of autism. The social problems can be classified into three categories: socially avoidant, socially indifferent, and socially awkward.

Socially avoidant. These individuals avoid virtually all forms of social interaction. The most common response is tantrumming and/or ‘running away’ when someone tries to interact with him/her. As infants, some are described as ‘arching their back’ from a caregiver to avoid contact.

For many years, it was thought that this type of reaction to their social environment indicated that autistic individuals did not like or were fearful of people. Another theory, which is based on interviews with autistic adults, suggests that the problem may be due to hypersensitivity to certain sensory stimuli. For example, some state that a parent’s voice hurt their ears; some describe the smell of their parents’ perfume or cologne as offensive, and others describe pain when being touched or held.

Socially indifferent. Individuals who are described as ‘socially indifferent’ do not seek social interaction with others (unless they want something), nor do they actively avoid social situations. They do not seem to mind being with people; but at the same time, they do not mind being by themselves. It is thought that this type of social behavior is common in the majority of autistic individuals. One theory is that autistic individuals do not obtain ‘biochemical’ pleasure from being with people. Research by Professor Jaak Panksepp at Bowling Green State University in Ohio has shown that beta-endorphins, an endogenous opiate-like substance in the brain, is released in animals during social behavior. Additionally, there is evidence that the beta-endorphin levels in autistic individuals is elevated so they do not need to rely on social interaction for pleasure. Some research on the drug, naltrexone, which blocks the action of beta-endorphins, has shown to increase social behavior.

Socially awkward. These individuals may try very hard to have friends, but they cannot keep them. This problem is common among those with Asperger Syndrome. One reason for their failure to make enduring social relationships with others may be the lack of reciprocity in their interactions, since their conversations often revolve around themselves and are self-centered. Furthermore, they do not learn social skills and social taboos by observing others, and they often lack common sense when making social decisions.

In addition to the above three types of social deficits, the social cognition of autistic individuals may also be dysfunctional. Recent research has shown that many autistic individuals do not realize that other people have their own thoughts, plans, and points of view. They also appear to have difficulty understanding other people’s beliefs, attitudes, and emotions. As a result, they may not be able to anticipate what others will say or do in various social situations. This has been termed as a lack of ‘theory of mind.’

Sensory. If the problem appears to be due to hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, sensory-based interventions may be helpful, such as auditory integration training, sensory integration, visual training, and Irlen lenses. Another strategy would be to remove these sensory intrusions from the person’s environment.

Biomedical. Naltrexone is usually not prescribed to improve social interaction; however, research studies and parent reports have often indicated improved social skills when given Vitamin B6 and magnesium, and/or dimethylglycine (DMG) (see the Autism Research Institute’s Web site).

Social. A treatment strategy to improve social behavior is using ‘social stories,’ developed by Carol Gray. This involves presenting short stories to teach socially appropriate behaviors. These stories are used to teach the individual to understand the behavior of themselves and others better. For information about social stories, contact Carol Gray at: Consultant to Students with Autism, Jenison Public Schools, 8375 20th, Jenison, MI 49428, U.S.A.