Psychology Chartered

Meeting In The Middle

Posted by Lexi Nye

14th September 2018

‘Why doesn’t she want to join in?’…’I think she prefers to do her own thing, she seems bored with us’… 

In social settings, it is understandable that a person with autism may come across as uninterested in others.  If you have an expectation of the socially acceptable ‘norms’ of communication, then some of the very things that characterise autism can violate these assumptions.

For example: eye contact.  During a conversation in many cultures, eye contact is a sign of respect and trust. However autistic people commonly report that they experience deeply uncomfortable sensations when they give eye contact; some even describe it as painful. This can therefore affect their conversations, initiating and responding to smiling, or even catching someone’s eye to wave hello.  A lack of eye contact could then easily allow one to mistakenly assume that person is blasé and uninterested.

Not being able to recognise facial emotions can also be misinterpreted as not socially interested. This can become frustrating as a child with autism may not be able to detect when their friend, for example, is bored playing with the doll’s house. Likewise, it can relate to things such as detecting the difference between a sarcastic or genuine smile which – although may seem small – can completely change the tone of a conversation.

The unique ways that are typical of a person on the autistic spectrum, such as avoiding eye contact or repeating what someone has just said to them (echolalia), have therefore been misinterpreted as ‘absence of interest in peers’ over the years.

Despite this, recent research by Jaswal and Akhtar (2018) has argued the case that although autistic people might find social settings frustrating, this doesn’t mean that they lack interest in other people. In Hale and Hale (1999) one participant, Charles Hale, describes:

“…when I should be smiling, sometimes I know that I am not smiling but may be even frowning. This causes me a great deal of pain and makes me look as though I am not comprehending when, in fact, I am crying to respond in an appropriate manner.” (Hale and Hale, 1999, p.32)

People with autism demonstrate behaviours such as avoiding eye contact when in fact, they are trying to interact with that person.  Jaswal and Akhtar (2018) explain that in some cases they actually listen better to a conversation if they don’t look at the person, or when they focus on the person’s mouth rather than the eyes.   You might also find that a person with autism will demonstrate self-stimulatory behaviour, known as ‘stimming’. If you have ever tapped your foot or twirled your hair then you have engaged in stimming. The types of stimming can be more obvious in autistic people, such as flapping their hands or rocking, and although these behaviours can be misinterpreted in a negative light, it can actually be an expression of happiness and excitement.

At the end of the day we are all human. We all want to engage with the people around us (albeit some of us being more extroverted than others).  With the desire to interact with others, but with the frustrating inability to do so, can have damaging effects if we are expecting autistic people to behave in ways that they were not neurologically built to do so. These can involve self-defeating thoughts, depression, and can lead to social withdrawal.

So therefore, having an open mind the next time someone doesn’t recognise you are having a god-awful day, or the next time someone avoids looking at your eyes when talking to you, can indeed go a long way to improving the social lives of people with autism and others who may find social environments frustrating. Sometimes we need to free ourselves from the socially defined ‘rules’ and expectations of our interactions with others!






To read more about the journal articles referenced, please see below.

Jaswal, V. K., & Akhtar, N. (2018). Being vs. Appearing Socially Uninterested: Challenging Assumptions about Social Motivation in Autism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-84.

Hale, M., and Hale, C. (1999). I Had No Means to Shout! Bloomington, IN: 1st Books. (As cited in: Robledo, J., Donnellan, A. M., & Strandt-Conroy, K. (2012). An exploration of sensory and movement differences from the perspective of individuals with autism. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience6, 107.