Reducing social content is key to improvements in physical skills and emotional state for most with neurodevelopmental challenges, particularly Autism.
Human beings constantly make judgements about the psychological states of others in any setting. We continuously analyze our impressions, and construct ideas from the cues we receive. This is the key in our self-regulation for social settings or social considerations and affects the way we develop meaningful relationships. We also value predicting behaviours in others in order to self-regulate and feel good.
There are specific cognitive mechanisms known as Theory of Mind (ToM) to help explain this. It is essentially a term used to explain the related set of brain abilities used to understand that “others” have beliefs, desires, plans, intentions, feelings, and information.
In Autistic children the ToM ability is vastly impaired, even with higher levels of intellectual capabilities.
What does this do to our understanding that social development is important to Autistics?
Well for the most part, detaching oneself from one’s own perspective such as in “putting oneself in someone else’s shoes” is a necessary skill to functioning in this society. At the same time, acceptance and tolerance by those who can discriminate these ways socially is necessary in society too.
The whole of childhood from kindergarten to end of secondary school involves the development of the ToM ability. With Autistics, there are “social” programs for focusing on the social aspects of their deficits. Unfortunately, most “social” programs are too social in a sense and do not meet the brain’s needs of the ASD child, nor does the setting in which they are placed into.
When it comes to programs that involve sports or activities for the purpose of social and physical development there is a common misnomer to the “social activity” idea. They do not achieve either, and usually create more deficit reproduction in the brain, thereby taking even longer to assist the brains’ ToM development. I am sure some of you reading this have experienced this effect.
In the beginnings of our work with ASD children and teens for physical intervention we found not only that there are many physical deficits (6), BUT the social component which includes the environment you provide the physical activity matters greatly. Here are two important things we learned early:
Firstly, providing any type of group dynamic while attempting to teach physical skill does not work. Secondly, working in a shared environment where several others are participating (such as a gymnastics facility or sports centre) creates stresses and therefore further regulation challenges. Working one on one where the social engagement is controlled by the professional, and the environment is a low activity/distraction is the best for physical and emotional development long-term.
Can Autistic children develop their ToM?
Through research we see that many can, BUT at a much later age than their neurotypical peers. For example, in a ‘second order’ false beliefs tasks which involves the understanding of what two people think sequentially such as “John thinks what Mary thinks”. Neurotypical children would pass this test at around age 6yrs where most ASD children may pass this in their teens.
Since social context (the amount of, and value of environmental social stimulus) is one of the deficits ASD children have, it makes sense to limit exposure while teaching motor skills and emotional regulation tasks. While they develop the primary skills and their ToM, later tests and exposures can be made in a professional manner. Reducing social content while learning tasks is a key goal for successful development!
Pediatric Research, B. Korkmaz, Theory of Mind and Neurodevelopmental Disorders of Childhood (2011) 69, 101-108