Socialization Characteristics and Implications

Socialization Characteristics and Implications

Social behavior is complex and varied, and it can also be subtle. It involves both verbal and nonverbal behaviors, and relies heavily on communication as a facilitator. Social behavior differs by age, but several types of general social behaviors are critical throughout the life span. For example, children and adults alike are expected to initiate and respond to interactions, take turns, understand subtle social cues, be aware of another’s point of view, and engage in activities and conversations based on shared interests.

Unfortunately, these critical skill areas are characteristically absent or limited in individuals with autism (Koegel, Matos-Freden, Lang, & Koegel, 2012). A long line of research has demonstrated deficits in social functioning of such individuals and the effects of those deficits. For example, individuals with autism not only exhibit fewer or markedly underdeveloped discrete social behaviors (e.g., making eye contact, adhering to polite social conventions) but also have fewer friendships, smaller peer networks, and greater isolation in social settings (e.g., on the playground) (Chang & Locke, 2016).

As with any other person, social initiations by a student with autism may serve many different functions. For example, a child may take the teacher’s hand and lead him to the refrigerator and then place his hand on the refrigerator door. This form of social interaction typically involves physical contact, communicative intent, and joint attention (e.g., both people are aware that they are both attending to the refrigerator) and is maintained by positive reinforcement (i.e., the function is to obtain something to eat or drink). Leading someone by the hand to help obtain a desired object (e.g., food from the refrigerator) is sometimes referred to as autistic leading , and this behavior can be shaped into more appropriate social communication with careful intervention (e.g., Carr & Kemp, 1989). Even though the behavior may function to obtain a nonsocial reinforcer (e.g., food), that does not mean the behavior is not a social skill. All of us use our social skills to help us obtain and avoid certain stimuli and contingencies. Teachers should be mindful of the various functions that the social skills in the student’s existing repertoire serve and use that knowledge to build new social competencies. For example, building from the autistic leading that functions to obtain food may involve teaching the student to verbally request food (Carr & Kemp, 1989).

Children and youth with autism who exhibit more socially oriented behavior (e.g., they watch people in their environment, initiate limited conversations, or respond to greetings) may still experience many social obstacles and related issues. For example, a student who initiates conversations may use unusual syntax or may talk only about one or two preferred topics. In some cases, socially oriented behavior does improve as individuals age (Scott, Clark, & Brady, 2000), but without intervention limited socialization opportunities and restricted social skills will continue to detract from the individual’s quality of life (Hochman, Carter, Bottema-Beutel, Harvey, & Gustafson, 2015). Well-planned and comprehensive interventions will increase opportunities for integrated placements and likely increase options for independent functioning.

In addition, individuals with autism typically do not exhibit joint attention, an important behavior necessary for both social and language development (Mundy, 2000; White et al., 2011). Joint attention, or shared attention, is a social experience shared by two or more people and often initiated by one person. For example, a toddler who is enjoying a toy may look away from the toy to the parent in the room and back to the toy as if to share the experience with the parent. Young students watching a magic act may look at and direct expressions of amazement toward their teacher on the conclusion of a dramatic trick. When adults experience a powerful stimulus (e.g., a good joke, a beautiful painting, a disturbing sight, a surprise), they often look at other people who are sharing the same experience and smile, nod, shake their heads, or exhibit other appropriate, shared responses. Joint attention is an essential prerequisite skill for later social communication and social interaction development (Kaale, Smith, & Sponheim, 2012) and should be a target for socialization interventions, especially with young children.

Other characteristics that interfere with socialization include deficits in social imitation skills, which are important for learning new social behaviors and also help us determine appropriate behavior in specific contexts, especially new contexts. Individuals with autism may also have difficulty with acknowledging or responding to the emotions of others (i.e., displaying appropriate empathy), perseverating on topics, choosing suitable conversational topics, maintaining conversations and other social interactions, and adhering to social norms of nonverbal social interactions (Howlin, 1986; Koegel et al., 2012; Pickles et al., 2016).

One of the most challenging aspects of improving social skills in students with autism is generalization of newly learned skills (Kasari et al., 2016). As you know, students with autism often do not automatically generalize new skills to different environments, unfamiliar peers or adults, or any other change from the original learning conditions. Lack of generalization can be particularly problematic for improving social behavior and social interactions in children and youth with autism. Effective social behavior is almost entirely a process of generalizing skills to novel conditions. For example, young children learn to say “hello” in response to a greeting. They probably exhibit this skill predictably in the presence of familiar adults, but they may turn away shyly or simply not respond when greeted by an unfamiliar adult. Eventually, with practice, prompting, and reinforcement, children learn to respond not only to unfamiliar adults but also to novel greetings (e.g., “Hi there!” “Good morning” or “What’s up?”) and in new settings (e.g., school, home, synagogue). Children with autism will not generalize most skills without structured interventions to achieve that goal.

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