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Do autistic teenagers spontaneoulsy help a clumsy researcher?

Spontaneously helping one another, why do we bother? It is believed that lending a hand to others promotes social bonding, helping us to connect with each other and even build friendships. In our experiment, in which the adult researcher ‘accidentally’ dropped matches on the floor, most adolescents were inclined to help her pick the matches back up. But autistic adolescents, both the boys and girls, didn’t help quite as much as their non-autistic peers. This finding would support the idea that autistic people are less motivated by social rewards or even less interested in building social relationships, as is believed by many.

Rachel O'Connor, Lex Stockmann & Carolien Rieffe
12 September 2019
Wiley: Spontaneous Helping Behavior of Autistic and Non-autistic (Pre-)adolescents: A Matter of Motivation?

A matter of motivation

We wanted to investigate how true this is, so parents in our experiment filled out a questionnaire on the social motivation of their autistic and non-autistic sons and daughters. These outcomes confirmed that the autistic youngsters were indeed less socially motivated, but that’s not all. Crucially, their lower social motivation was unrelated to their helping behaviors. In other words, those who helped did not necessarily show more social motivation according to their parents.

So most likely, other factors must explain why the autistic adolescents did not help as much as their non-autistic peers. For example, they may find it tricky to initiate social behavior, and thus don’t offer help unless invited or prompted to do so. Initiating social behavior requires not only knowledge of what is going on and what is needed, but also how to act upon it. As you can imagine, when your understanding of the many implicit social rules is limited, and you are trying to figure it out on the spot, it can be a truly stressful experience.

Remarkably, autistic girls smiled as often as their non-autistic female counterparts. When the researcher dropped her matches, it was observed from the video recordings that the girls would smile at her, as if to offer sympathy or show understanding of the researcher’s situation. So why is this so remarkable? Well, a smile is a non-verbal way to communicate a social intention. A smile shows the intention to reach out to the other person, the intention to bond. Furthermore, smiling is a social expectation predominantly placed on girls and women, who are generally considered the more caring and empathic gender. Especially in pre-adolescence and beyond, non-autistic girls are known to smile more than non-autistic boys, but now we also know that autistic females learn and conform to this gender expectation.

Autism in females frequently goes unnoticed. Very often, only in middle age, and after a long history of misdiagnoses such as depression or anxiety (and the consequently inappropriate treatments) autistic women receive their long overdue diagnosis. Their male counterparts are more easily recognized because they show less socially adaptive behaviors, generally thought of the typical autism presentation.

In fact, many autistic women seem very good at so-called “camouflaging”. In other words, they seem to carefully observe the world around them to learn social rules and behavior that helps them to fit in. But this does not come naturally. While non-autistic females might be energized by social events like a birthday party, for many autistic girls such an occasion is exhausting. For them it involves being on high alert, constantly monitoring their social behavior, and yet often still falling short of others’ social successes.

So the smiles of the autistic girls in our experiment, what do they imply? Perhaps one of the many ways that they go about camouflaging their autistic features in an attempt to fit in and be accepted by their peers. Yet our research that started this year will investigate how young autistic people can move around socially at their high school without camouflaging their features that make them different and unique. Features that may be hindering at times, but can be advantageous on other occasions. Moreover, a more inclusive social climate might also enhance social motivation in these autistic teenagers.

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