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Being versus appearing socially uninterested: Challenging assumptions about social motivation in autism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 June 2018

Vikram K. Jaswal
Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4400. jaswal@virginia.edu
Nameera Akhtar
Psychology Department, University of California, Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA 95064. nakhtar@ucsc.edu


Progress in psychological science can be limited by a number of factors, not least of which are the starting assumptions of scientists themselves. We believe that some influential accounts of autism rest on a questionable assumption that many of its behavioral characteristics indicate a lack of social interest – an assumption that is flatly contradicted by the testimony of many autistic people themselves. In this article, we challenge this assumption by describing alternative explanations for four such behaviors: (a) low levels of eye contact, (b) infrequent pointing, (c) motor stereotypies, and (d) echolalia. The assumption that autistic people's unusual behaviors indicate diminished social motivation has had profound and often negative effects on the ways they are studied and treated. We argue that understanding and supporting autistic individuals will require interrogating this assumption, taking autistic testimony seriously, considering alternative explanations for unusual behaviors, and investigating unconventional – even idiosyncratic – ways in which autistic individuals may express their social interest. These steps are crucial, we believe, for creating a more accurate, humane, and useful science of autism.

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