Autism: Impairments in Social Interaction
The most striking feature of autism is social disconnection. People with autism may appear neither to be interested in nor able to “read” the social world. It is as though they are blind to the boisterous, complicated, emotionally loaded give-and-take of human interaction. Writing of one of the boys in his study, Kanner stated:
“He paid no attention to the persons around him. When taken into a room, he completely disregarded the people and instantly went for objects, preferably those that could be spun. Commands or actions that could not possibly be disregarded were resented as unwelcome intrusions. But he was never angry at the interfering person. He angrily shoved away the hand that was in his way or the foot that stepped on one of his blocks…”1
The boy in Kanner’s study pushed away interfering body parts without seeming to understand that they were attached to a whole person – a person with his own intentions and desires. They were just objects that happened to be in the way. This is very typical of autism.
Current day researchers are working to understand this social disconnect. Their observations have shown us that, whereas typical infants are “pre-wired by evolution with the motivation and capacity to begin establishing an immediate social relationship with their caregivers," 2 individuals with autism tend not to focus on human faces or voices. They tend neither to look at their caregivers, nor to establish “joint attention” with them in order to create shared experiences.3 They do not point at a doll, an airplane, a golden retriever, looking from object to parent and back again, to show and to enjoy together.
Even when a person with autism does manage to focus on the social world, they have great difficulty interpreting what they see and hear. Whatever it is that permits typically-developing people to instantly make a good guess about another person’s mental or emotional state, it is not functioning properly in people with autism. They are said to have mindblindness4 -- that is, they lack the ability to take another’s perspective, to “read” where they are coming from, and to respond in kind.
For those with a family member who has been diagnosed with autism, this may be the most distressing aspect of the disorder: to love a child, grandchild, or sibling who cannot fully connect with you in the way that you had hoped. It is no wonder that most interventions include at least some focus on helping a person with autism relate to the people in their family and the larger world.
- Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217-250. (pg. 220)
- Carter, A.S., Davis, N.O., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. (2005). Social development in autism. In F. Volkmar et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (pp.312-334). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. (pg. 317)
- Mundy, P., & Burnette, C. (2005). Joint attention and neurodevelopmental models of autism. In F. Volkmar et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (pp.650-681). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Baron-Cohen, Simon. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA; London: The MIT Press.