Socialising and Autism: Why We Shouldn’t Force Children with Autism to Socialise

Normally, when humans socially engage and see the face of other people, be it a loved one or a stranger, our brains reward us with dopamine and o

Normally, when humans socially engage and see the face of other people, be it a loved one or a stranger, our brains reward us with dopamine and oxytocin—the “feel-good” chemicals it releases in our body. Although the euphoria they give is often momentary and subconscious, every interaction reinforces that feeling, which in turn makes us want to see people’s faces and interact with them more. We may tweak our bodies and filter the thoughts that come into our minds, but we simply cannot change this innate need for belongingness and interaction.

However, that’s not always the case because there are numerous individuals who have ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, and more often than not, children with autism need therapy to live more meaningful lives . People with ASD respond differently when it comes to socialising (especially children with autism), not because they want to, but because it’s how their brains function. With this in mind, why is it that we still try to make these unique children fit in and play along with our social world that’s brimming with complex social rules?

They are Uninterested in Pleasing Others or Socialising with Them

To be fair, not a lot of people know that those with ASD are not as interested in getting around folks. Most individuals are quick to judge and often say “Are activities for autistics inherently anti social?” Because those with ASD would often prefer to be left alone or simply don’t spend that much time socialising. As parents, it’s understandable why one would want their child to be “normal” and fit in with the other kids without a problem. It’s mostly because they’re afraid that their youngster might get bullied or made fun of. Some may even scold their kids and tell them to “Go out and make some friends!” or “Stop being such a weirdo and act normally!”

According to the Expertise Hypothesis (a hypothesis indicating that the systems involved in face processing within the brain are also engrossed by things that have immense within-class similarity), those who have autism don’t have issues or peculiar abnormalities with brain functions that result in the loss of one’s ability to socially interact, or undermine their emotion recognition skills. The problem is in the underdevelopment of these skills for those with ASD, which neurotypical (short for “neurologically typical”) individuals have on an expert level. Experts are still unsure as to why this built-in social aloofness is present, but they are still investigating and learning more about the disorder every day.

Now, one might think that people who are in the autism spectrum are just naturally apathetic and devoid of feelings, but that’s not true. They are just as capable of feeling the full range of emotions that we experience as humans—they’re just wired differently. Though it’s true that they are more egocentric (disinterested in craving for acceptance, praise, affection, and doing tasks that don’t give them enjoyment just to please people) that doesn’t mean that they’re 100% incapable of socialising.

Giving Rewards for Displaying Socially Interactive Behaviour

Due to their underdeveloped social skills and the reluctance to view other people’s perspectives, those with autism spectrum disorder have shown incompetence in an elementary Theory of Mind (…the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc. — to oneself, and to others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. –Wikipedia) test where a child is tasked to answer this brain-teaser correctly:

“Sally has a basket and Ann has a box. Sally places a marble in the basket, then leaves. Ann moves Sally’s marble to the box. When Sally returns, where will she look for her marble?”

Compared to a neurotypically developing child at the age of five who gave the right answer, a vast majority of kids and teenagers with ASD failed the test and answered that Sally will check the box first. But interestingly, according to a report posted on Wiley Online Library entitled “Children with autism can track others’ beliefs in a competitive game”, a marginally modified version of the Sally-Anne Test recorded shocking results.

In the altered version, rewards were presented (e. g. a toy or chocolate) for every correct answer that the children made. The autism test was conducted on Australian kids with ASD and the results showed dramatic improvement to the scores. The first Sally-Anne test only had 13% of the children (those with ASD) pass. Compare that to the bounty-directed Sally-Anne test which garnered 74% passers, it’s clear to see that children with ASD can track other individual’s views and beliefs in a reward-based, competitive game. However, using this strategy as a solution would only open up more issues.

Real Life is Unlike Any Reward-Based Games

“If rewards make them act ‘normal’, then that means rewards are the solution to the problem, right?” Wrong. The fact that life doesn’t always provide everyone with a reward every time they successfully socialise with other people, will only cause more turmoil in the minds of someone who has ASD. This will only cause cognitive dissonances in them, which could end up getting them into trouble.

Truth be told, the real answer to this problem lies in our acceptance. The acceptance that training such beautiful and amazing children to fit in our neurotypical life, where each interaction is frighteningly confusing, is wrong. See, the biggest difference between a person with ASD and a neurotypical individual is that a neurotypical’s brain is genuinely enticed in figuring the complex interaction that our social world has, while someone with ASD could care less about it—and we should let them be—because what’s in it for them?

We should stop forcing our practices to those who have ASD because it simply doesn’t apply to them. Our notion of “No man is an island” bears no weight to them because they’re wired in a way that’s completely unique from us and we shouldn’t blame them for that. Instead, we should support and celebrate them for being exceptional individuals and treat them just like us (not differently just because they’re showing autistic signs). At the end of the day, our hearts still beat to the same rhythm—which is the rhythm of humanity.