Social Limitations of Autism

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In a society that is deprived of face to face contact, it is very easy to get lost on your phone, tablets, etc. As members of society, we often task our social skills for granted, thinking that is automatic and something that everyone possesses, which isn’t the case. For people on the autism spectrum disorder, what people think is innate is what they struggle with the most. The issues that they face vary from person to person, but they all share the same ideal of isolation.

Autism is classified as a disorder of neural development, which is often associated with restricted and repetitive behavior. It was first discovered by Leo Kanner in 1943, in which he believed that the disorder arose at birth and developed in the first few months of life. While many stigmatize autism and write it off as a mere case of mental retardation, there are many individuals that are affected by this label. The autism spectrum ranges from low functioning individuals who need 24/7 assistance to individuals who can fend for themselves but have a few social quirks. In fact, some people diagnosed with autism are listed savants, which are people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder that display extraordinary talents and surpass abilities of professionals that have studied a topic for years. With savants, their talent usually lies in something specific, an example being architecture. Without prior knowledge and one glance of a landscape, a savant could memorize the infrastructure down to the last detail and draw it out perfectly. Even with this almost supernatural memory, a savant still has trouble socially, and most will just write him off as a “idiot savant”.

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Social limitations in autistic individuals is a very complex and puzzling topic. The difficulties common for young children with ASD focus on their ability to engage jointly with others (joint attention/joint engagement), and the amount and quality of their interactive skills to enter into or maintain interactions with peers (Interventions Addressing Social Impairment in Autism, Kasan and Patterson). In a scientific context, the disorder correlates to impaired development of limbic connectivity, though in recent years it has become increasingly known that it affects all areas of the brain, as opposed to specific areas associated with social functioning. In terms of memory, a research study that included neurologist Nancy Minshew showed that children with autism lacked good memory for complex information in the form of words and pictures. In the same study, it also showed that they lacked working memory for spatial information, which meant recalling an item once it was no longer presented to them. Essentially, their memory is very fragile, and at times can find themselves repeating many things because they often don’t remember themselves saying it. To precisely pinpoint what may be going on in these children, various interventions have been developed in order to analyze a controlled environment of autistic patients.

In a social skills intervention designed by Connie Kasari and Stephanie Patterson, the main targets were knowledge and conceptual understandings, peer relationships/friendships, and joint attention/joint engagement. The interventions were ran under the theory that sustained knowledge of social behavior would result in improving social interactions in real time. While focus on core deficits increased, future designs needed to address the active causes of interventions, which can be parents, environment, etc. Out of the 35 designed that required intervention, many were deemed weak, and only 3 were deemed strong. 2 of the studies considered strong were conducted by Kasari herself, and involved different types of intervention. The first one involved JASPER vs. delayed intervention involving 38 toddlers(n=38) and it measured observed joint engagement, play types, joint attention skills, and caregiver quality of involvement. The results yielded increases in immediate treatment group and decreased in object only engagement. The second study involved child assisted, peer assisted, and child plus peer vs. control intervention and it measured social network salience, playground observation, and teacher perception social skills. The results yielded child and peer group increases in social network salience over child, peer, and control while solitary engagement decreased for children in the peer intervention. The last strong study conducted composed of 61 preschool students(n=61). It involved joint attention intervention vs. treatment, and it measured observed duration of joint engagement. The results yielded increases in frequency of JA skills in teacher child interaction and increase in joint engagement, being the only study in the interventions that didn’t not see a decrease in anything.

While the studies that were rated strong showed promise and serves as a template for future interventions, there is still a lot of work to be done to find something that can universally help out individuals affected by ASD. Not every autistic person turns out to be a savant, so a “Rain Man” approach cannot be applied to every person.

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