Associate Professor of Psychology from the University of Virginia Vikram Jaswal told psychology and education students that autistic people have a greater desire to be socially active than most people believe.
Autism is a neurological condition that affects one in 59 people in the United States. There’s a wide spectrum of autistic symptoms that create an array of different ‘types’ of autistic people. Some, for example, are very talkative and have what is called echolalia, a repetition of a previously heard utterance. Others are non-verbal or have trouble communicating in certain situations.
Jaswal recently started researching autism after his now 10-year-old daughter developed autism when she was one.
“I actually think of this as a source of inspiration,” he said.
Jaswal also utilized autistic minds in his research lab. Up until recently, there haven’t been autistic people studying and participating in the conversation about autism. Allowing autistic people to sit at the research table provides a unique perspective, giving researchers an opportunity to learn from and collaborate with autistic people.
“I can’t believe its taken until 2018 for people to study autistic people,” Jaswal said.
As a culture rooted in social connections and interactions of many different formats, we expect socially interested people to express specific behaviors including eye contact, gazing and point following, responding to their name and asking about the interests of others.
Autistic people, according to Jaswal, actually feel a sense of discomfort, due to some kind of hyper arousal, when looking people in the eyes. So when autistic people don’t look you in the eyes, it doesn’t mean they lack social interest. They just may be uncomfortable.
While autistic people can’t express the same social behaviors that other can, they still express social motivation in other ways. During his presentation, Jaswal noted two examples of communication between parent and child in which the parent was able to readjust their definition of social behaviors to fit their children.
One parent, a famous journalist at the time, noted that his son, Owen Suskind, constantly repeated the phrase “juicervose.” Initially not understanding the origins of the phrase, Suskind realized that the phrase only came about when his son was watching Ursula bargain with Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.” In the scene, Ursula tells Ariel that if she wants to be turned into a human, all she needs to give up is ‘just her voice.’
Suskind discovered that “juicervose” was his sons way of communicating to his father his own inability to communicate, as if he had also given up ‘just his voice.’
After more than proving that autistic people do in fact have a desire to socially interact, Jaswal suggested ways in which we can support Autistic people who want to forge these social connections with people.
Jaswal suggested two strategies: intervening on the individual and intervening on others. For the individuals, Jaswal suggested that we add new conventional behaviors to the Autistic individuals’ repertoire as a way to help them to learn new ways to express themselves in a way that both parties will understand. With others, change their interpretations of existing behaviors, like Suskind did with his son’s method of communicating a specific message.
With that, why does this research matter? Why should we care? Jaswal explained that autistic people express higher levels of loneliness than those who haven’t been diagnosed with autism. Loneliness in autistic people is linked to depression, self-injury, and suicidal thoughts. Social isolation is also a risk factor for mortality, similar to smoking and alcoholism.
There is certainly much to learn about communication and social interactions with those who communicate in a way that differs from social convention, but that doesn’t do away with autistic peoples’ need and desire for social interaction.