Why children with autism are less social than their peers

written by Meena Azzollini

child playing with toys in a room

Credit:123RF

There are multiple theories which explain the core social deficits that we find in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – a complex neurodevelopmental condition.

The social motivation theory suggests that children with ASD are not motivated to interact with other people. They don’t feel rewarded by social interactions as people with typical development or TD, so they don’t go out of their way to engage with other people.

The sensory over-responsibility theory also known as e overly intense world theory suggests that children with ASD interpret social cues more intensely than TD children. Kids with autism often find interactions too intense and will perceive them to be overwhelming or aversive and as a result will withdraw from such interactions as a self-soothing behavior.

The study found that TD children anticipated rewards – the pictures of faces – more strongly than kids with ASD.

However, scientists seem to think that both competing theories explain why kids with autism are less social than their typical peers.

Scientists used electrophysiology to study neural activity in 43 children between the ages of 7 and 10 years. 20 children had ASD while 23 kids were TD.

The children participated in a “pick a hand” type of guessing game simulation which provided them with social and nonsocial rewards. Each child sat in front of a computer and were shown pairs of boxes containing question marks. The children picked what he or she thought was the right box.

The game was structured in a way that researchers could study their neural reactions to reward anticipation and reward processing – which is the period after the box is chosen. There would be a brief pause after the children had picked a box thereby building their anticipation of a reward.

Each child wore a cap fitted with 33 electrodes to measure neural oscillation patterns.

Each child played the game in two blocks. During the social block, when the child picked the right box they would see a smiling face and if they chose a wrong box then they would see a sad, frowning face.
During the nonsocial block, the faces were reformed into shapes of arrows with the right box getting an arrow pointing up while the wrong box received an arrow pointing down.

After the kids saw whether they had the right or wrong answer, the researchers studied post-stimulus reward activity which involved comparing their neural oscillation patterns.

The study found that TD children anticipated rewards – the pictures of faces – more strongly than kids with ASD.

Within the ASD group, children with severe ASD were anticipating the nonsocial arrows the most. They also showed a heightened responsiveness to positive social feedback which may be indicative of hyperactivity or the state of being overwhelmed by the positive feedback which is common in sensory over-responsivity.

During reward processing, the period after the children found it if they picked the right box or not, the researchers found more reward-related brain activity in TD kids but more attention-related brain activity in children with ASD which may be related to sensory overload in these children according to the researchers.

The study shows that kids with ASD may not find social interactions rewarding as typical kids do but the research makes it possible to develop interventions that can help children with autism better understand the reward value of social interaction with other people and to be able to teach them how to interact without overwhelming them or making them feel sensory overload.

Source: Molecular Autism


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Meena Azzollini

Meena is passionate about holistic wellbeing, alternative healing, health and personal power and uses words to craft engaging feature articles to convey her knowledge and passion. She is a freelance writer and content creator from Adelaide, Australia, who draws inspiration from family, travel and her love for books and reading.

A yoga practitioner and a strong believer in positive thinking, Meena is also a mum to a very active young boy. In her spare time, she loves to read and whip up delicious meals. She also loves the smell of freshly made coffee and can’t ever resist a cheesecake. And she gets tickled pink by anything funny!