Social Motivation and Autism

Social motivation is key for typical learning and growth

People with autism think differently than others, and social acceptance isn't necessarily a primary motivator for them. Perhaps, as a result, people with autism don't attend closely to others' social behaviors nor do they imitate what others do, say, or wear in particular settings. They are rarely motivated by social rewards or by the threat of losing social opportunities.

None of this means that people with autism dislike social engagement (some do, some don't), nor does it mean that autistic people never get lonely. But it does mean that autistic people react differently to behavioral motivators and, as a result, often lack the skills and desires that push their peers to achieve socially approved goals.

Lonely middle school student in cafeteria
SDI Productions / Getty Images

What Is Social Motivation?

Most infants, children, teens, and adults are highly motivated by social acceptance, inclusion, and rewards. Tiny babies turn their heads and smile when another person attempts to engage their attention. Toddlers work hard to get the attention and praise of parents and other adults. Tweens and teens spend much of their time imitating and striving for the approval of peers—or hoping for praise from parents and teachers. Adults are motivated by the approval of others as well: most will work harder for peer recognition or for a chance to be selected, included, or advanced in a social situation.

To achieve social acceptance, inclusion, or promotion, most people attend very closely to what others do, want, or approve. At all ages, we imitate our peers and look for clues that will help us gain social prestige. Prizes for social acceptance are everywhere, from selection as "Prom King and Queen" to Employee of the Month, election to office, or acceptance into a fraternity or social club.

Because so much of our lives is bound up in the process of achieving social acceptance, we take for granted the desire to observe and imitate the social behavior of our peers. In addition, we assume that, for example, "grounding" a teen will be a meaningful consequence for poor behavior while supporting social activities will be a meaningful reward.

Social motivation is the driver for learning, achievement, and life choices. We don't strive for acceptance simply because smiles are pleasanter than frowns, but because we actively want the experience of being welcomed and included among our peers.

Social Motivation and Autism

The social motivation theory of autism states that autistic children are intrinsically less interested in social engagement. As a result, they pay less attention to social information. The outcome: impaired socio-cognitive development, which can be described as anything to do with our understanding of other people and their actions.

For example, autistic people often lack:

  • Theory of Mind (ToM): The ability to understand that other people think differently or to accurately guess what others are thinking and feeling.
  • Imitative skills: The ability to closely observe and copy the behavior of peers in various social situations.
  • Communication skills: The ability to use appropriate verbal and non-verbal language to communicate wants, needs, and ideas.
  • Play skills: The ability to engage meaningfully with same-age peers in age-appropriate games that require collaboration or shared creative thinking.
  • Empathy: The ability to put oneself into another person's shoes and imagine how they might be feeling (empathy is different from sympathy; most autistic people are very capable of feeling sympathy for another person's pain).

In addition to these deficits which, not surprisingly, make day-to-day life extremely challenging, people with autism are not motivated to action by the approval of others.

This doesn't mean that autistic people act badly in order to gain disapproval—in fact, this is extremely rare. Instead, it means that many people on the spectrum are oblivious to or unconcerned about others' expectations.

Thus, for example, a child with autism may be perfectly capable of (for example) tying his shoes but may have no particular interest in doing so. The fact that "all the other kids" tie their own shoes is irrelevant.

Lack of social motivation is particularly significant for very young children who learn a great deal in the first few years of life through imitation and imitative play. It can also be disabling as children become teens and adults. Many autistic people "hit a wall" when their social communication skills and social motivations fail to keep pace with their intellectual abilities.

Motivators and Autism Therapy

Motivators are the key to any type of training or education. No one will behave or act in prescribed ways unless they have a reason for doing so.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is an extremely popular therapeutic technique that uses motivators, sometimes called "reinforcers," to teach desired behaviors to children (and some adults) with autism. These motivators are supposed to be based on the individual's preferences. As a result, they may include food treats (often small candies or crackers) or preferred activities (for example, a chance to bounce on a trampoline or play with favorite toys).

Sometimes it's possible for the therapist to establish a strong positive relationship with the learner, and in those cases, a hug or high five can also be a meaningful reward. While negative reinforcements (punishments) were at one point a part of ABA, they are rarely used today except in the most extreme situations.

There are pros and cons to this type of therapeutic approach:

ABA Pros
  • Therapists actively attempt to understand what motivates the individual

  • Autistic children are more likely to comply with requests

ABA Cons
  • Once the reward disappears the motivation shrinks

  • Autistic children may focus on the reward rather than the desired action

On the pro side, therapists are actively attempting to understand what motivates the individual with autism before teaching desired behaviors. As a result, autistic children are more likely to comply with "mands," or requests to complete a given action.

On the con side, while the individual may learn the behaviors in order to earn the desired reward, once the reward disappears the motivation shrinks. In other words, while a child might learn to smile and say hello in order to earn a treat, he may choose not to do so if the only reward is the approval of a teacher or peer who may (or may not) smile back.

Another potential downside is the reality that autistic children can perseverate (become entirely focused) on the reward rather than the desired action. Thus the child's focus is not on observing or understanding the actions of others around her, but rather on the reward she'll be earning if she repeats a desired behavior. The result is that the child may be capable of doing something but not understand the purpose or context of the action.

Even when a reward is "faded" as the learner starts to perform a behavior by rote, the learner doesn't necessarily generalize the behavior. For example, a child may learn to smile and say good morning to her teacher each day. At the start, she is rewarded every time with a small treat. Later, she receives a sticker instead of a treat. Finally, she says good morning without any kind of reward. But because she may not notice or value the teacher's answering smile, she may not have an active desire to exchange smiles.

In addition, it's likely that the child will smile and say hello only in the setting in which she learned the behavior because she hasn't generalized the idea that "one smiles and says good morning to all teachers." Thus, she may use the behavior in homeroom class but not in math, or in kindergarten but not in first grade.

Implications for Autistic People

Knowing how pervasive social motivation is for almost everything we do throughout our lives, it's easy to see that lack of social motivation in a person with autism can lead to some serious deficits. This is the case even if the individual is bright, capable, creative, sympathetic, and willing to engage with others—and, of course, it's much more of an issue for a person who has a lower IQ, behavioral challenges, and difficulty with spoken language.

People on the autism spectrum are often unaware of social expectations or their importance. As a result, they may:

  • Dress or speak inappropriately based on the situation in which they find themselves (wearing shorts to work, for example)
  • Choose not to complete tasks that they find uninteresting or unimportant (including, for example, shaving or finishing a school project)
  • Misunderstand spoken or non-verbal social communication and take action based on that misunderstanding
  • Behave in an unintentionally rude or thoughtless manner through lack of social understanding or unawareness of subtle spoken or unspoken cues
  • Find themselves socially isolated because they have not reached out or reciprocated social invitations
  • Lose opportunities that could have come their way had they taken advantage of opportunities of which they were unaware or to which they didn't respond
  • Lose peer relationships as a result of perseverating on topics of personal interest that don't interest others (and particularly as a result of perseverating on age-inappropriate interests such as children's movies, video games, and so forth)

While it's not possible to "teach" social motivation, it is possible to provide support, advice, and coaching to both children and adults with autism. For individuals who have the interest and capacity to, for example, attend college, work in competitive jobs, or build adult relationships, social skills education and 1:1 support is extremely important. In many cases, problems can be averted and opportunities grasped with a little help and advice at the right moment.

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  • Koegel, Lynn et al. Improving motivation for academics in children with autism. J Autism Dev Disord. 2010 Sep; 40(9): 1057–1066. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-010-0962-6.

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By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.