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Social and Behavioral Deficits

Tammi Reynolds, BA & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Social Deficits and Empathy Deficits. Compounding their communication difficulties, many children with autism also show profound empathy deficits. They develop only a very limited appreciation, or no appreciation at all, of other people's feelings and ideas. They don't recognize and respond to faces as do normal children, and they thus do not learn that each face belongs to an individual separate person. To the children with severe autism, their own feelings and ideas are the only feelings and ideas that appear to exist. Children with autism may have no reaction to another person's crying, for example. They may have no idea that their words and actions affect other people. Many children with autism are completely unaware of their surroundings and other people in their surroundings. It is impossible for some children with autism to take another person's perspective without deliberate training.

Given their empathy and communication deficits, children with autism experience the social work to be unpredictable and frightening. They find social interactions to be unnatural and quite stressful. Rather than embracing relationships, most children with autism try to avoid them, choosing rather to take refuge and comfort in their own isolated worlds. They do not reciprocate play and they do not engage in normal play activities without prompting. They also avoid meeting other people's gaze, and tend instead to fixate their eyes away from people, on to inanimate objects or parts of objects.

When higher functioning children with autism do choose to be social, their deficits in social understanding and empathy prevent them from smoothly engaging with others. For example, a high functioning child with autism may know he is supposed to use words to initiate a conversation with other children, but not know quite how to use them appropriately. Correspondingly, he may walk up to a group of children and attempt to initiate a conversation by echoing an out-of-context phrase he heard previously such as, "It was a dark and stormy night" rather than by making eye contact and saying hello. Though well intentioned, such odd behavior is, of course, quite baffling to children who don't already understand about autism.

Behavioral Deficits. In addition, children with autism may exhibit odd emotional behavior that is not easily understood by others. children with autism's social fears can manifest as compulsive behaviors and/or aggression. Many require order and routine to be maintained as they transition from one activity to another. They may endlessly repeat certain ordering behaviors that serve a self-soothing function. Changes to routine can easily frighten them, resulting in tantrums and aggression. Aggression is not always directed outward, but instead may result in self-injurious behaviors.