Impairment in Social Relationships

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Lack of awareness

Autism is characterized by an impaired ability to engage in social relationships and can result in serious deficits in the ability to make friendships. In fact, children with autism often behave as if other people do not exist. This is demonstrated in various ways, including failure to respond to their names when called, appearing not to listen when spoken to, an inability to display appropriate facial expressions, avoidance of eye contact, a failure to respond to affection, and sometimes treating people as if they were inanimate objects. Often children will acknowledge an adult only for the purpose of getting a need gratified and will return to ignoring the adult thereafter.

If a child with autism possesses any social skills, they are characteristically rote and awkward in nature. Individuals with autism also experience problems maintaining reciprocal relationships. Additional difficulties center around an inability to take on another’s perspective (e.g. a child with autism hurts another child and cannot understand why he/she is crying), feelings and emotions, or provide or seek comfort, in conventional ways.

Abnormal seeking of comfort when stressed

Individuals with autism tend to crave predictability and function optimally in highly structured situations. Concurrently, they are likely to become extremely dependant on elements of sameness in their lives, to the extent that they can have difficulty coping with changes in their environment or routine. Whereas most people seek reassurance when faced with fear, pain or insecurity, individuals with autism react this way to seemingly harmless objects or situations possibly because they associate them with a previous unpleasant experience.

Impaired imitation skills

All children learn behaviour patterns of social interaction through imitation. Very young children with autism will often fail to respond or exhibit delays in responding to the gestures or playful overtures of peers, even when these are familiar to them from past experience or through repetition. Without direct and carefully planned intervention efforts, as a child with autism grows older, his/her capacity for benefiting from the opportunities he/she may encounter for imitative learning will continue to be limited.

Abnormal toy play

When a child with autism sits down to play, he/she generally has a stereotypical and repetitive approach as opposed to the symbolic, creative and imaginative play behaviour exhibited by the typically developing child. Some children may refuse to play with toys, or if they do they may do so in unusual ways. They may not see a toy car as a car but rather as an object that rattles and makes funny patterns when the wheels are spun. This unusual toy play probably account for part of the reason why these children have difficulty interacting with peers and joining in games with others.

Inability to form friendships

Children with autism lack two essential skills that are vital for peer connections:

  • The ability to relate to peers in a positive and reciprocal manner; and
  • The ability to adapt interpersonal skills to the various demands of different social situations.

These children are not out looking for opportunities to interact and may even find it difficult to be in the physical proximity of others. Typically they are not sought out by peers.