One of the main symptoms of autism spectrum disorder is a lack of social reciprocity. People with autism have difficulty reading and using social cues appropriately. Human beings are social animals, and a disorder that impairs one’s ability to create and maintain satisfying relationships is a deficit that affects many aspects of life, both personally and professionally.
Some would argue that people with autism aren’t interested in close personal relationships. They prefer to avoid social situations, and are in fact happier when they are simply left alone. This may be true to an extent, for some individuals, but it is also possible that this attitude of preferred avoidance is a learned behavior stemming from repeated rejections after unsuccessful attempts to connect with others in social settings.
A study by the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior found that young adults with an autism diagnosis who suffered from social anxiety reported higher levels of loneliness in relation to their friendships, families, and romantic relationships. A similar study by Susan White in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University found a positive correlation between anxiety, loneliness, and the degree of social skill deficit in school-age children with autism.
These studies show that people with autism have the same desire for connecting with others, and that they can feel just as lonely as anybody else. Behavioral interventions like ABA can teach social skills, but it is notoriously difficult to teach people with autism all of the nuances and unspoken rules of social interaction, which can vary between different people and different situations. Social stories can teach specific skills, such as how to order food at a restaurant, but it’s incredibly challenging to teach someone how to read the subtle social cues that let you know when your significant other is upset, or that your friend may be getting bored listening to you talk about the same topic again and again.
Dr. Steven Gutstein of the Connections Center in Houston Texas created a therapy model called Relationship Development Intervention (RDI®). He spent years teaching social skills to children and adults with autism, but found that many of his patients continued to have difficulties in social situations and interpersonal relationships. He created RDI® after studying the ways in which interpersonal relationships are built between typically developing children and their caregivers.
These early interactions form the foundations of all later relationships, but they go off-track when the child has autism. Dr. Gutstein developed a program that systematically trains parents to offer their child a re-do of these critical early interactions, guiding the child towards joint attention, social referencing, and emotion-sharing. For more information about RDI®, see Dr. Gutstein’s website at www.rdiconnect.com.
Social isolation is a real problem for people with autism, even those who are diagnosed as “high-functioning.” Everybody want to belong, to connect with others, and to be understood. Developmental models such as RDI® may help people with autism bridge the gap, and lead to a higher quality of life.