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He can’t have autism, he likes people!

posted Oct 4, 2013, 11:26 AM by Devorah Levin   [ updated Oct 4, 2013, 11:27 AM ]
I don’t know how many times I have heard doctors say “Your child can’t have autism, because he is interested in others.” There often seems to be confusion on the degree of "social interest" in children with autism. The "social desire" of children on the spectrum can range from very isolative to seeking frequent, ongoing, social attention. The degree of social interest is not the discriminating factor. It is the child's ability to co-regulate interaction with other children, especially their own age. Individual's on the spectrum, even if they have strong desire to interact with others and have friends, struggle with being able to read the thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and intentions of others, and have difficulty in coordinating play with peers. It is not so much that they are not interested, but simply “don’t know how.” They have difficulty with coordinating the back and forth cooperative play, maintaining purposeful interaction, and repairing breakdowns in relating.

The children often want to either lead the play or sit back and stay passive. They do not understand social boundaries and can become overbearing or intrusive in their play. They probably will not be able to take turns, stay “in sync” with peers and understand all the social rules of the play. They may want to dominate the interaction or dictate the rules of play. They may want to connect very badly, but just "don't get it."

So, "social interest" itself is not a deciding factor. It is the ability to effectively engage in the "back and forth" reciprocal play. By the way, the child on the spectrum often feels much more comfortable playing with children much younger than them, or with adults. They struggle much more with children their own age.

Unless the child can learn to (1) read the nonverbal communication that makes up 80% of relating, (2) can read the thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and intentions of others, and (3) can read the contextual cues of the social situation, he will struggle with relating with NT peers as he gets older. 

I find that children with ASD can relate real well with others on the spectrum that have the same interests to relate around. This works well since neither person is using or reading nonverbal language. Nonverbal language is not as important in this interaction.

I also find that relating with neurotypical (NT) peers can go well, as long as the peer has a good awareness of "how" and "why" the child acts, or does not act, the way he expects. The problem arises when the NT child feels uncomfortable because he does not know how to "read" the ASD child's behavior, or understand the "lack of response." When they understand "how" to relate with the child and what to expect, then the children can have fun with each other.
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