Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Tip Tuesday! Autism: Social Interest vs. Social Competence

It is not uncommon for pediatricians, parents, educators and yes, even therapists to be confused when it comes a child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) who exhibits interest in socially interacting with others.

Just because a child expresses interest in wanting to interact with others does not mean the child's diagnosis is incorrect. 

In fact, for children with high functioning autism, it is quite common to see them seek out other children and long to interact with them.  However, the distinguishing factor between a neurotypical (NT) peer and a child with ASD is their ability to successfully and competently initiate, maintain and terminate social interactions rather than their attempts and apparent interest in interacting.

In my experience, I have even seen non-verbal children with ASD make eye contact, seek out a parent or teacher and take him/her to get a wanted object, and even smile and laugh when hitting or kicking other children.  However, the one thing these communicative episodes have in common is that although social interaction was obtained, it was not successfully achieved.  

Below is an exert posted on Autism Discussion Page developed by Bill Nason, MS, LLP.  

Bill has some really great information on his Facebook page (link above) for parents and professionals.  I recommended you check it out!  

Bill does such a great job explaining the topic difference between social interest and competence below:
"He can’t have autism, he likes people!
I don’t know how many times I have heard doctors say “Your child can’t have autism, because he is interested in others.” There often seems to be confusion on the degree of "social interest" in children with autism. The "social desire" of children on the spectrum can range from very isolative to seeking frequent, ongoing, social attention. The degree of social interest is not the discriminating factor. It is the child's ability to co-regulate interaction with other children, especially their own age. Individual's on the spectrum, even if they have strong desire to interact with others, and have friends, struggle with being able to read the thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and intentions of others, and have difficulty in coordinating play with others. It is not so much that they are not interested, but simply “don’t know how.” They have difficulty with coordinating the back and forth cooperative play, maintaining purposeful interaction, and repairing breakdowns in interaction.
They often want [to] totally lead the play, or sit back and stay passive. They do not understand social boundaries and can become overbearing or intrusive in their play. They probably will not be able to take turns and understand all the social rules of the play. They may want to dominate the interaction, or dictate the rules of play. They may want to connect very badly, but just "don't get it."
So, "social interest" itself is not a deciding factor. It is the ability to effectively engage in the "back and forth" reciprocal play. By the way, the child on the spectrum often feels much more comfortable playing with children much younger than them, or with adults. They struggle much more with children their own age."

So if you are questioning whether your child exhibits social competence here are a few questions you can ask yourself when watching your child interact with others? 

  1. Does my child prefer solitary play or to play with children much younger than he/she is?  
  2. Does my child show an interest in interacting with other children his/her age?
  3. Do my child's interactions mirror typical social communication? Meaning, does my child socially interact like other children his/her age?
  4. Can my child join other's in play or invite other's to play with him/her?
  5. Does my child respond to other's questions or comments in play?
  6. Does my child tend to lead play interactions?  Do other children dislike playing with my child or call him/her "bossy/pushy"?
  7. Can my child play games and take turns with peers?
Depending on how you answer the questions above may be indicative of deficits in social competence and further assessment in the area of social communication should be explored.  I recommend that you contact your local speech-language pathologist to follow up on these concerns.

Remember...even pediatricians can get easily confused by social interest vs. social competence.  So if you feel your child is struggling socially but you are told to dismiss those feelings by anyone, know that you are your child's advocate and closest communication partner.  If you feel in your gut something is not right, don't hesitate to follow-up on these concerns and contact an experienced professional (neurological developmental pediatrician, a speech language pathologist, a special educator, etc.) who can point you in the right direction. 

Happy talking! 


  1. Shared your great article, Maria! Gee, do you ever sleep?? Aloha and Mahalo for all your great posts!

    1. Hahahah! Thanks for sharing! And yes I do sleep...its one of my favorite hobbies. But when you have a 3 year old, it is sometimes a luxury I cannot afford! Ha! So glad you enjoyed the post!


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