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Are autistic youngsters less prosocial?

A common notion is that autistic people feel no need for social contact, that they are socially clumsy and show little prosocial behavior. But is that image correct? According to developmental psychologist Carolien Rieffe, an important goal of  Autism Awareness Week (March 28 - April 5) is to remove the stigma attached to  autistic individuals.

'It can be very stressful to be constantly on guard about whether you are doing things correctly or not. But that is unrelated to a lack of social motivation', says professor Carolien Rieffe.

Individuality and diversity in the schoolyard

All children learn social skills mainly through social participation. They learn social skills at home within the family, and especially with peers outside the home, on the street and at the playground. For an autistic child, participating in the schoolyard or the classroom means there must be room for individuality and diversity. And that starts with autism awareness.

Autism awareness

Many activities for Autism Awareness Week have been canceled this year due to the coronavirus crisis. What remains is the task of increasing awareness of autism in a wider audience, either in-person or online.

Expressing and talking about emotions

At an early age, we already see a difference in the expression of negative emotions between autistic and non-autistic toddlers. This influences how they behave toward others, as Boya Li discovered. Li is a member of Rieffe's research group, and refers to research recently accepted for publication in the journal Autism. Li: “In our longitudinal study on autistic and non-autistic preschoolers, expressing negative emotions was associated with more behavioral problems in both groups. But the autistic preschoolers showed more negative emotions than the non-autistic preschoolers, and therefore more behavioral problems. Yet, the behavioral problems of the autistic preschool children decreased more strongly when they improved their emotion recognition and talk about emotions.”

Motivation to help spontaneously

As earlier research by Rieffe’s research group found, autistic adolescents were less likely to help spontaneously when the researcher opened a box upside down, dropping all the matches inside onto the floor. Most of the autistic youngsters had seen what had happened, but not everyone helped out when the researcher went on her knees to pick up the matches. The autistic girls did smile at the researcher as often as the non-autistic girls, showing that they did notice something was going on, and of course some autistic youngers did get off their seats and helped pick up the matches. However, both autistic boys and girls were more likely to stay in their seat than their non-autistic peers, showing less prosocial behavior.

Motivation to belong somewhere

It would be all too easy to conclude that the autistic adolescents have little or no need for appreciation from others, and that they don't care what others think of them. It is often suggested that autistic individuals have no motivation to belong or to participate, and that they are not prosocial. Rieffe: “Our research did indeed show that autistic youngsters scored lower on a measure of social motivation than non-autistic youngsters. But this was unrelated to their spontaneous helping behavior. In other words, those who scored higher on social motivation were not necessarily those who helped the researcher pick up the matches.”

Need for friendships and social contacts

The fear of doing something wrong is possibly an underlying factor for the less common occurrence of both aspects of prosocial behavior. Rieffe: "Interviews at UCL in London clearly showed that autistic youngsters have just as much need for friendships and positive social contact as non-autistic youngsters." But autistic youngsters do not always understand the social rules: What is expected of them? How should they behave? What should they say, and when? This uncertainty can be very stressful. Clinical psychologist Els Blijd-Hoogewys, the clinical expert within Rieffe’s project, states: “Autistic girls in particular often know the social rules, but it takes a lot of energy to constantly pay attention to these rules. Where other girls come home cheerful and energized after a birthday party, an autistic girl comes home exhausted, or may prefer not to go at all. A better understanding of what autism actually is, or why autistic people sometimes seem less prosocial, may help  contradict existing prejudices about autism.”

Els Blijd-Hoogewys is a clinical psychologist at INTER-PSY, founder of FANN, National Network of Female Autism and chair of the National Autism Congress.

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