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Autism study examines why behaviors are misinterpreted

News & Advance - 7/7/2018

CHARLOTTESVILLE - You can learn a lot from your children.

Through his autistic daughter, Vikram Jaswal, a University of Virginia associate professor of psychology, learned you can't always judge a person through accepted social norms.

"Before my daughter came along, I didn't study anything to do with autism. But living with her and meeting other children and adults with autism and their families really shaped my perspective," Jaswal said. "It led me to look at communications in particular a lot closer."

Jaswal and colleague Nameera Akhtar, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, delved into the topic. They discovered that assumptions that autistic persons were uninterested in communicating or being sociable were incorrect.

"You can't just assume that because people behave differently or in a certain manner, that they aren't interested in social interaction," Jaswal said. "For the most part, when it comes to autism, we haven't considered the possibility that there are multiple ways people could show interest."

Jaswal and Akhtar researched and wrote "Being verses Appearing Socially Uninterested: Challenging Assumptions about Social Motivation in Autism," recently published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The paper focuses on four common autistic behaviors that in the past have been interpreted as a lack of social interest.

The behaviors are avoiding direct eye contact, infrequent pointing, repetitive body movements and echoing statements gleaned from previous conversations and movie or TV dialogue.

The study uses interviews with autistic children and adults, as well as their families, to consider alternative explanations for the behaviors.

"Some behaviors that [are interpreted] as a lack of social interest can occur because of factors unrelated to social motivation," the study states.

"Some may occur deliberately, as when someone chooses not to engage in eye contact so as to avoid the anxiety it produces, and some may occur for reasons outside an autistic person's control, as when someone cannot control their repetitive hand movements," the study states. "There may be different causes for the same unusual behavior across autistic individuals and even within the same individual at different points in time."

In an email, Jaswal and Akhtar said autistic people tend not to make eye contact as often as non-autistic people do.

"[Non-autistic people] take this as a sign that [the autistic] person doesn't want to interact with them, but this is just an assumption, an interpretation of that person's behavior. It's not necessarily true," they wrote.

Jaswal noted different cultures interpret different behaviors differently.

"People behave in different ways, sometimes because of how they're raised, sometimes through their experiences and sometimes it depends on neurological issues," Jaswal said. "One of the things that's been done over the years is to make assumptions about autistic people and their motivations and behaviors without asking the autistic people about it."

But in their work, Jaswal and Akhtar went straight to the source.

"If you actually ask autistic people why they don't engage in eye contact, you get explanations that have nothing to do with social interest. They might say they find it easier to understand what someone is saying when they're not looking at them," the researchers said.

"Many autistic people express a profound longing for social connection, just like non-autistic people, and a deep frustration that their behavior is so often misinterpreted," they said.

Jaswal said many people assume autistic people lack social interest, which he said dehumanizes them.

"If I assume you're not interested in interacting with me, even though you are, then I probably won't exert much effort to interact with you, which will lead to a situation where neither of us wants to interact with each other," he said.

"Or I might insist that you interact with me in the ways I expect socially interested people to interact, even though the neurological differences caused by your autism make that difficult or impossible for you," he said. "Ironically, how I behave toward you could cause your aloofness toward me."

The researchers said the study's goal is to convince others to treat autistic people with more respect and develop effective means of social support.


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