Monday, February 12, 2018

Reading the Research: Why Autistic People Might Be Less Social

Welcome back to Reading the Research, where I trawl the Internet to find noteworthy research on autism and related subjects, then discuss it in brief with bits from my own life, research, and observations.

Today's article discusses two theories regarding why autistic children tend to be less socially inclined than their neurotypical peers, and adds in a piece of current research that combines those two theories.

The first theory is one I've actually mentioned in this blog before, more than once.  It's called the Intense World theory, and it posits that autistic people withdraw from social situations because we're overwhelmed by the sheer amount of sensory input.  When the very light itself stabs you, the noises around you startle you constantly, smells worm their way into my nose and provoke blinding headaches, and even the touch of your loved ones hurts... well, suffice it to say you're not going to do very well outside of very safe areas.

The second theory is newer to me, but makes sense.  Called the social motivation hypothesis, it suggests that autistic people don't get the dopamine chemical boost from interacting with people that neurotypical people do.  Basically, most people feel good after talking to someone (assuming the conversation went well), and autistic people may not.  So while most people have that automatic reward for interacting with others, autistic people may not, and as such, don't opt to do so as often as "normal."

The article comments that these theories have been considering "competing."  I can't see why, frankly.  A lot of things in life are caused by multiple factors, not just one... so I don't know why there would have to be just one reason for autistic people to be less social than neurotypical people.  But anyway, the article suggests these theories might work in tandem, and the research attached shows evidence of just that.  The tested autistic children displayed less social reward response, and heightened responses to social feedback, which they're saying indicates sensory-responsiveness.

Speaking on a personal note, if I engage with small talk/"mindless" chatter with people in the grocery store or whatever, I think I do get the dopamine burst now, but didn't used to.  But, and this is important, that dopamine burst is almost immediately balanced out by a rush of intense anxiety.  Sounds become louder, my brain shifts into high gear, and I start panicking about anything I said that might've been taken the wrong way.  Needless to say, it's not fun at all.  Obviously I'm not going to stop talking to random people when it's warranted, but I'm disinclined to just... chatter away at people.

Interestingly, the study showed a phenomenon something like that rush of intense anxiety after positive social feedback in the more heavily affected ASD kids.   Which makes me wonder where precisely I fall on the spectrum, after all. 

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