Assessing only conventional social cues may overlook bonds forged by nonverbal autistic children

December 16, 2020
A recent study found that that the strong connections between mothers and their nonverbal autistic children are a result of the mothers expanding their understood categories of socially oriented behavior beyond the typical, conventional examples. (Photo by Mathilde Langevin on Unsplash)

A recent study found that that the strong connections between mothers and their nonverbal autistic children are a result of the mothers expanding their understood categories of socially oriented behavior beyond the typical, conventional examples. (Photo by Mathilde Langevin on Unsplash)

Nonspeaking children with autism and their mothers are able to form a strong connection beyond language-based communication and traditional social cues as a result of the mothers expanding their view of what constitutes social behavior from their children.

An interdisciplinary study published in late November in PLOS One featured a group of 13 mothers from the U.S. and Canada with nonspeaking autistic children between 5 and 14 years old. In a series of interviews with researchers, the participants were asked to reflect on the behaviors they interpret as relevant to social connection with their nonspeaking autistic children. 

Janette Dinishak, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a co-author of the study, told The Academic Times that the methods of the study were a departure from how social behavior is traditionally researched in autism or development. Researchers tend to look for certain behaviors that are assumed to be universal indicators of social interest, and make inferences about children’s social interest on the basis of how often they engage in those behaviors, according to the study.

About one-third of people with autism are nonspeaking, and do not consistently show conventional signs of social engagement. This can lead others to believe they are not interested in connecting with other people.

The researchers focused on this group because there is an absence of literature on nonspeaking children, Dinishak said, and because there is a “hyper-negative view of that subpopulation of autistic children and adults.”

“The paper is one of an array of projects where we’re looking at ways to view autistic individuals and their relationships with others in a more positive light that doesn't just make their way of being in the world about deficit, deficiencies [and] disabilities,” Dinishak said. 

In the study, the team noted that previous research in the field has shown that autistic children do not consistently act in conventional socially interested ways. But the current findings show that the strong connections between mother and child are a result of the mothers expanding their understood categories of socially oriented behavior beyond the typical, conventional examples.

Some of the mothers described the difficulty of forming a social and familiar bond with their kids without being able to rely on traditional social cues and language-based connection. But they still reported feeling strongly connected to their children with autism in other ways.

The researchers determined through the interviews that the mothers are able to establish new behavioral categories to elicit feelings of connection, reframe and give new context to behaviors that would typically be harmful or undermine social connections and overcome uncertainty in their interpretations of their children’s social behaviors. 

Children with autism are less likely to engage in behavior such as making eye contact, using physical touch or responding to their name compared to children without autism. But the mothers in the study reported that they have learned to understand other actions that helped them form meaningful, reciprocal relationships with their children. 

The children discussed in the study communicate most through smiling, gazing, kissing, leaning in, holding hands, laughing, physical proximity and shared activities. The mothers also agreed that their children have distinct personalities, are more emotionally and intellectually competent than they appear to others and should be accepted for who they are.

“This study shows how there could be such impactful positive benefits to presuming competence in the child rather than assuming that the child is incapable,” Dinishak said. 

If parents assume their child with autism is incapable of meaningful interaction, they may give up on attempting to foster a connection with them. This then creates a looping effect, Dinishak said, where the child doesn’t try to interact, confirming the doubts of the parents in the first place and in turn leading to the child becoming less capable. 

Research of this nature can provide insight into the variety of ways that social interest can be perceived, according to the study. There are also documented associations between children who do not seem socially connected and parenting stress, and understanding how mothers experience connection with their autistic children could be important to efforts to reduce parenting stress, Dinishak said.

The study was funded by a special research grant from the Committee on Research at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Fathers were invited to participate in the study, but ultimately 13 mothers went through the interview process.

“When you have such a small sample size, it’s hard to infer reliable generalizations. It’s even more difficult in the case of autism because of the heterogeneity of autism,” Dinishak said. 

“But the aim of our study wasn’t to try and arrive at generalizations that would apply to the wider autistic population, it’s more of a conversation starter to try and suggest things that could be studied further,” she continued. 

The team of researchers consisted of two developmental psychologists, a philosopher and an anthropologist, some of whom are parents of nonspeaking autistic children.

The study, “Experiencing Social Connection: A Qualitative Study Of Mothers Of Nonspeaking Autistic Children,” was published in PLOS One on Nov. 25. Janette Dinishak of University of California, Santa Cruz, served as a co-author alongside Vikram K. Jaswal of the University of Virginia, Christine Stephan (whose university affiliation was not given) and Nameera Akhtar of the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

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