Autistic People Do Want to Socialize, They May Just Show It Differently

Boy with his chin on a window

Autistic People Do Want to Socialize, They May Just Show It Differently

A new paper led by the University of Virginia and just published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences is pushing back hard on the notion that people with autism are not interested in socializing.

The paper’s authors say they hope the research will lead to more respectful treatment of people with autism as well as development of more effective methods of supporting them.

“We believe the most effective interventions will involve teaching both autistic and non-autistic people to recognize each other’s social signals, rather than insisting that autistics behave like non-autistics do,” said Vikram Jaswal, an associate professor of psychology.


Vikram Jaswal headshot

Psychologist Vikram Jaswal said one of the frustrating things about autism is that it is so heterogeneous. “Most of the research is pretty gloom and doom,” he said. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The paper, “Being vs. Appearing Socially Uninterested: Challenging Assumptions about Social Motivation in Autism,” is coauthored by Nameera Akhtar, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“Our article challenges an influential account of explaining and intervening in autism,” Jaswal said. “Essentially, this account, which is common among both scientists and laypeople, claims that a primary reason for autistic people’s unusual behaviors is that they’re not socially motivated.

“We point out that this flies in the face of what many autistic people themselves say about longing for social connection and ignores alternative reasons for why autistics may sometimes behave in ways that non-autistics interepret to mean they are socially uninterested,” he said.

In the paper, the two professors challenge the assumption that people with autism do not wish to socialize, by offering alternative explanations for four behaviors:

  • low levels of eye contact,
  • infrequent pointing,
  • motor stereotypies (repetitive movements), and
  • echolalia (verbatim repetition of another’s words)

They suggest low eye contact could be a strategy some autistics use to concentrate. Some autistics say they find it hard to pay attention to what someone is saying while looking at them. “Ironically, NOT looking someone in the eye may actually mean that they are trying very hard to pay attention and to participate in the conversation even though it can get interpreted in the opposite way,” Akhtar said.

When it comes to infrequent pointing, Jaswal said lots of autistics have explained, and research backs this up, that they experience difficulty in getting their body to do what they want it to do. “They might want to share something interesting with someone else, but simply cannot put together or carry out the surprisingly complex motor plan that’s needed to point,” he said.

When we’re anxious or bored, many of us engage in repetitive movements – tapping our feet, twirling a pencil – regardless of whether we have a diagnosis of autism, Akhtar pointed out. “And some autistics have explained that they simply cannot stop doing them even though they know others may perceive them as odd.”

Just like non-autistics use quotes from movies or television shows to communicate something about the current situation (e.g., “No soup for you!” from Seinfeld), so, too, do autistics, Jaswal said, explaining echolalia.

The meaning of a given instance of echolalia may not be immediately obvious, but that doesn’t mean there is no meaning, he added. “And in fact, echolalia can represent a profound way of trying to connect with other people.

“In one account we describe in the paper, one autistic boy repeated, ‘Chicken Little thought the sky was falling, but the sky is not falling,’ when his mother was despondent over the death of a friend.”

In their abstract, the authors write:

“The assumption that autistic people’s unusual behaviors indicate diminished social motivation has had profound and often negative effects on the ways they are studied and treated. We argue that understanding and supporting autistic individuals will require interrogating this assumption, taking autistic testimony seriously, considering alternative explanations for unusual behaviors, and investigating unconventional – even idiosyncratic – ways that autistic individuals may express their social interest. These steps are crucial, we believe, for creating a more accurate, humane, and useful science of autism.”

“It’s important to take seriously what autistic people say about themselves,” said Jaswal. “If they say they are interested in interacting with other people, why wouldn’t we believe them?

“One important way to support autistic people is to help non-autistics recognize different ways that social interest can be expressed,” Jaswal said.

The journal, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, invites 15 to 25 commentaries from other academics for a period of time and then Jaswal and Akhtar will write a reply this fall. A PDF of the full paper can be downloaded at this link until the end of August.

Note: The article is currently under commentary; it has been accepted but has not yet copyedited and proofread. The final version will be published online in the near future.


Media Contact

Jane Kelly

Office of University Communications