Fact sheet for information on social development and Autism, an Autism Spectrum Disorder


Typically-developing infants are social beings. Early in life, they gaze at people, turn toward voices, grasp at fingers, and smile. In contrast, most autistic children do not show special interest in faces and seem to have tremendous difficulty learning to engage in everyday human interaction. Even in the first few months of life, many autistic children seem indifferent to other people, lacking the eye contact and interaction with others that non-autistic children are expected to exhibit. Some infants with autism may appear very calm – they may cry less often because they do not seek parental attention or ministration.


Lack of empathy

According to Simon Baron-Cohen, many autistic children appear to lack a “theory of mind,” which is the ability to see things from another person’s perspective. This is a behavior cited as being exclusive to human beings above the age of five and possibly, to a lesser degree, to other higher primates such as adult gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. Typical five-year-olds can usually develop insights into other people’s knowledge, feelings, and intentions based on social cues such as gestures and facial expressions. An autistic individual may lack these interpretation skills, leaving them unable to predict or understand other people’s actions or intentions.


Autism, friendships and affection

Children with autism often experience social alienation during their school-age years. As a response to this, or perhaps because their social surroundings simply do not “fit” them, many report inventing imaginary friends, worlds, or scenarios. Making friends in real life and maintaining those friendships often proves to be difficult for those with autism.


Autistic children often seem to prefer being alone and may passively accept such things as hugs and cuddling without reciprocating, or resist attention altogether. Later, they seldom seek comfort from others or respond to parents’ displays of anger or affection in a typical way. Research has suggested that although autistic children are attached to their parents, their expression of this attachment may be unusual and difficult to interpret.


Behavioral issues with autism

Although not universal, it is common for children with autism to have difficulty regulating their behavior, resulting in crying, verbal outbursts, or self-injurious behaviors that seem inappropriate or without cause. Those who have autism generally prefer consistent routines and environments, and they may react negatively to changes in their surroundings. It is not uncommon for these individuals to exhibit aggression, increased levels of self-stimulatory behavior, self-injury, or extensive withdrawal in overwhelming situations. However, as the child matures and receives education/training, he or she can gradually learn to control such behaviors and cope with difficult changes in other ways.


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Autism and other Autism Spectrum Disorders have major impacts on the social development of children