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Guessing Game Sheds Light on Autistic Children Social Behavior

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Stay shows two theories about ASD are connected

According to a news story from University of California Riverside, a simple guessing game of "Pick a hand, any hand" may offer some important clues as to how and why children with autism are less social than their schoolyard peers.


As many parents know, having a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be very challenging in coping with their social skills with the people around them.

One theory referred to as "the social motivation hypothesis" is that kids with ASD aren't intrinsically motivated to interact with other people because they aren't neurologically "rewarded" by social interactions the same way children without ASD are.

"Most of us get a hit of dopamine when we interact with other people, whether it's through making eye contact or sharing something good that's happened to us -- it feels good to be social," states Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor of special education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California. "The social motivation hypothesis says kids with autism don't get that same reward from social interaction, so they don't go out of their way to engage with people because it's not rewarding for them."

A second theory, known as "the overly intense world hypothesis," posits that children with ASD interpret sensory cues more intensely to the point where it becomes very overwhelming or aversive; and therefore, causes them to shy away from normal social interactions because withdrawing from the social situation becomes self-soothing.

"Kids with autism often find noises too loud or lights too bright, or they find them not intense enough," Dr. Stavropoulos said. "Most of us wouldn't want to talk to someone whom we perceive as screaming, especially in a room that was already too bright, with ambient noise that was already too loud."

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However, according to the latest electrophysiological study comparing the neural activity of both children with autism and children without using a guessing game type of simulation, those two theories may not be exclusive of each other reports Dr. Stavropoulos in a recent paper published in the journal Molecular Autism.

According to the UCR news story, children with and without autism were outfitted with caps containing electrodes to monitor their brain activity while playing a guessing game to observe the children's neural reactions to both social and nonsocial rewards during (1) reward anticipation (the period before the child knew whether he or she had chosen the correct answer), and (2) reward processing (the period immediately after discovering whether or not the correct answer was chosen).

"We structured the game so that the kids would pick an answer, and then there would be a brief pause. It was during that pause that the kids would begin to wonder, 'Did I get it?' and we could observe them getting excited; the more rewarding something is to a person, the more that anticipation builds," said Dr. Stavropoulos explaining that the games were played in two blocks: "Social blocks" where kids who chose the right box saw a smiling face and kids who chose the wrong box saw a sad, frowning face; and in "nonsocial blocks", where the faces were scrambled and reformed in the shapes of arrows pointing up to denote correct answers and down to denote incorrect ones.

"After the kids saw whether they were right or wrong, we were then able to observe the post-stimulus reward-related activity," said Dr. Stavropoulos.

The results of the experimentation showed that:

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1. TD (typical development) kids anticipated social awards -- in this case, the pictures of faces -- more strongly than kids with ASD.

2. Not only did children with ASD anticipate social rewards less than their TD peers, but within the ASD group, the researchers found that kids with more severe ASD were anticipating the nonsocial rewards, or the arrows, the most.

3. During reward processing, or the period after participants learned whether they had chosen the right or wrong box, the researchers observed more reward-related brain activity in TD children but more attention-related brain activity among children with ASD, which Stavropoulos said may be related to feelings of sensory overload in kids with ASD.

4. Among the autism group, meanwhile, kids with more severe ASD also showed heightened responsiveness to positive social feedback, which Stavropoulos said may indicate hyperactivity, or the state of being overwhelmed by "correct" social feedback that is commonly associated with sensory over-responsivity.

The results led the researchers to conclude that both the social motivation and the overly intense world theories were connected.

"Kids with autism might not be as rewarded by social interactions as typically developing kids are, but that doesn't mean their reward systems are entirely broken," she added. "This research makes the case for developing clinical interventions that help children with autism better understand the reward value of other people - to slowly teach these kids that interacting with others can be rewarding.

"But, it is critical to do this while being sensitive to these kids' sensory experiences," Stavropoulos continued. "We don't want to overwhelm them, or make them feel sensory overload. It's a delicate balance between making social interactions rewarding while being aware of how loudly we speak, how excited our voices sound, and how bright the lights are."

For more about ASD, here is an informative piece on The Top Ten Signs of Autism You Need to Watch for in Your Infant.


UCR Today "What Makes Kids With Autism Less Social Than Their Typically Developing Peers?"

Molecular Autism, 2018; 9 (1) "Oscillatory rhythm of reward: anticipation and processing of rewards in children with and without autism" Katherine Kuhl-Meltzoff Stavropoulos, Leslie J. Carver.

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