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Autistic children develop social-emotional skills with other children

Autistic children have indeed potential: most of their emotional abilities improve with age, concludes developmental psychologist Boya Li in her research on the emotional development of autistic children. Promotion on 10 November 2021.

Social and emotional skills are learned by children not from books or from teachers, but in everyday interaction with other children. This is a lot harder when social interaction is limited.

Boya Li explains: 'It’s very possible that when you walk into a school, you might see an autistic child sitting in the corner of the classroom, not really playing with other children or talking to teachers. Possibly, this child prefers to be alone at times, which is fine. But also this child needs friends and other social contacts, and social learning. How can we achieve that, and how does this affect their social-emotional development? During 3 years we followed autistic and non-autistic children in their pre-school years, in collaboration with the Center for Autism.’ 

Learning curve

While Li's PhD confirms the challenges and difficulties many children with autism face in the emotional domain, her research also gives hope. ‘Most emotional abilities that I examined improved with age in autistic children. Some abilities even grew at a faster rate than in non-autistic children. I am really excited about this outcome, because now I can show that autistic children have the potential and the ability to improve. People often have a stereotypical view that autistic people cannot change, but also autistic children show a learning curve.’

Stereotypical view of autism

Li herself is also not unfamiliar with the stereotypical view on autism. When she started her PhD, she held a ‘medical view’ of autism, but her view has changed drastically by the end of the project. ‘I feel a little ashamed when detecting traces of this medical thinking, as if autism is a problem that should be cured. Just as a lot of researchers in this field, before I saw autistic children as children with deficits and impairments. My goal was therefore to detect these problems so my findings could help professionals and educators to find a intervention. But this is not how I look at the issue now.’

Whose standard?

‘Before I focused on how autistic children recognised facial emotions of non-autistic people and how they reacted in empathy provoking situations compared to a non-autistic person. All behavioral outcomes of autistic children were evaluated based on the standards established by non-autistic people. That is like using Dutch standard to evaluate behaviors of a Chinese child, or vice versa. This clearly doesn’t work. Maybe autistic children have indeed difficulties in recognising other non-autistic people’s emotions or reacting in a non-autistic way, but we never thought of the other side of the story.’

Bold Cities/ NWO schoolyard project

The other side of the story

'I want to look at the other side of the story, so not focusing on how autistic children should improve, but on how the other side, the environment of the child, could be improved. For example, we want to see whether there are barriers in the social environment that hinder autistic children from participating, like the attitude of people at school who might not understand autism.’ Li brings her vision into practice in a project that looks at the development of children with autism from a new perspective. ‘I love this project I recently joined because it is a beautiful extension of my PhD research', says Li about the Bold Cities/ NWO schoolyard project.

As cliché as it sounds, children are the future so we should do our upmost best to facilitate and support them, and to provide all children, with and without autism, the optimal learning environment.

Optimal learning environment

There is room for improvement in the physical environment of autistic children as well. ‘We know that autistic children have a different sensory experience. Most social interactions take place during breaks when children all rush to the corridor or to the playground. However, that time can be very arousing for autistic children. Instead of chatting and laughing with peers, they may experience anxiety or stress that makes them unwilling to participate. We want to improve situations like this with the Bold Cities/ NWO Schoolyard Project.'

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