Social Interactions in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

One of the most significant symptoms of autism in a child is a deficit in social skills. Children appear to not have a desire to socialize or their ability to read social cues and verbal/body language makes it difficult. Learn the definition of ASD and social difficulties of children with ASD in this lesson.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Andrew, age three, doesn't appear interested in interacting with other kids in preschool. He doesn't speak a lot either. Instead he plays with himself in the corner of the classroom, aligning plastic figurines in a row and stacking blocks. When Andrew gets frustrated, he starts banging his head on the wall. Andrew has ASD.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an intricate disorder of brain development that can negatively affect social interaction, communication, cognition, intellect, and behavior. About 50% of ASD cases come with an intellectual disability. Many children with ASD present with concentrated, repetitive behaviors, social deficits, and communication issues.

In the latest (5th edition) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), ASD encompasses four different developmental disorders that were once separate disorders in previous editions of the DSM. These include autism, Asperger's Disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. Because ASD encompasses all of these disorders now, individuals with ASD can present with a wide variety and intensity of symptoms.

This means that although one of ASD's defining characteristics is a deficit in social skills and interactions with others, not all ASD individuals have the same intensity of this deficiency. Andrew from the opening example has an obvious deficit in social skills, yet, Andrew's classmate Evan has ASD and appears to desire friendships but has trouble communicating with peers.

Social Deficiencies in Children with ASD

We will learn about social interactions and deficits in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) through the example of Andrew.

Early attempts at Social Interaction

It was when Andrew was about three months that his mother noticed that he avoided eye contact when she nursed him. When Andrew's mother took him to a mommy and me class when he was eight months, she noticed that other kids responded to their names, but not Andrew. She also noticed that kids were starting to say words like 'dog,' 'mama' and 'dada' when they approached the one year mark; Andrew was hardly babbling.

Relationship with Caregiver/Parent

It was between the age of one and two that Andrew's mother noticed that he would accidentally bang his head or fall, and not even seem fazed by it. He would hardly seek comfort from her when he hurt himself. Andrew's parents felt like he was not emotionally or physically attached to them; he just didn't show affection like other toddlers did.


It is now when Andrew attends a preschool for three-year-olds where his difficulty with playing with other kids becomes apparent. He doesn't like to interact with other toddlers. When the preschool director would sing Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes or play Simon Says, he won't imitate her like the other kids. Andrew prefers to play alone in the corner of the room.

Some kids with ASD have a desire to play with others, but have difficulty with picking up on social cues that ease interaction
Kids playing on the ground

Other children with ASD have no interest in playing with others and may be called loners
Loner child

Regulating Emotions

Every three-year-old has tantrums every now and then, but Andrew's tantrums are different. When he has them, he can't seem to calm down and has difficulty managing his emotions. His tantrums sometimes even escalate to where he gets aggressive and starts engaging in self-injurious behaviors like head banging and biting himself. If Andrew's parents divert from routine, it seems like he can't handle it and he cries incessantly.

Understanding Others

Let's fast-forward a couple of years down the line when Andrew is five. Andrew may have trouble understanding that his teacher putting her finger in front of her mouth means that the class needs to be quiet. He may have trouble deciphering between his teacher's angry tone of voice and her calm tone of voice when she says his name.

When Andrew does interact with other kids at this age, he might anger a classmate and not pick up on the cues that this classmate is getting ready to punch him. Kids with ASD have difficulty picking up on social cues or predicting the actions of others.

Considering Others Perspective

Andrew may have difficulty seeing that his rolling out of bed late and sluggishly getting ready in the morning will make his mother late for work and will cause her problems with her supervisor. He may not be able to look at things from her perspective or consider her feeling of anxiety and frustration.

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