One helpful way to understand the behavior of autistic individuals is to consider their social-emotional development


Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon


One helpful way to understand the behavior of autistic individuals is to consider their social-emotional age. Specifically, one should ask: How do individuals with autism act in social and emotional situations? and At what age level are these behaviors consistent? The age at which one acts socially is typically the same age he/she acts emotionally. Once the person’s social-emotional age is determined, it may be easier to understand why the person acts the way he/she does and then determine the best ways to intervene with the individual.


At first, it may be difficult to decide the person’s social-emotional age. Basically, one should consider how the person responds to social situations (e.g., if and how the person plays with others) and how the person responds to emotional situations (e.g., how he/she acts when told ‘no’). For example, at a social-emotional age of two years, one would expect behavior such as refusing to do simple requests, stubbornness, and self-centeredness. A person who is socially-emotionally like a five-year old would be very concrete in his/her thinking, would engage primarily in parallel play with peers, and would still be quite egocentric. A person who is socially-emotionally like an eight-year old is often characterized as trying to model older peers and adults and following rules to the letter (and may have difficulty understanding exceptions to the rules). Moreover, an 8-year old child is typically trying to accomplish things in the social and academic realms.


Sometimes, caretakers have unrealistic expectations for an individual’s behavior; and this can lead to frustration for both the caregiver and the person with autism. This can occur when the caretaker’s expectations are based on the person’s intellectual functioning level rather than his/her social-emotional functioning level. That is, sometimes it is assumed that a person’s intellectual level is the same as his/her social-emotional level. This is not necessarily the case. An example may be found in a workplace scenario. An autistic adult who may be very good at performing office tasks, such as filing and photo-copying, may have temper tantrums when a minor problem occurs, similar to the behavior of a five-year old child. Another example might be seen in a high school student with Asperger Syndrome who is in an integrated classroom. One might expect this person to interact normally with same aged peers in a classroom setting. Instead, the other students might tease and not interact much with him/her since he/she is functioning socially-emotionally as a younger child.


Margaret Bauman, M.D. has found neurological evidence that indirectly supports the relationship between brain functioning and social-emotional age. Dr. Bauman has conducted numerous autopsies on the brains of autistic children and adults. She has consistently found immaturities in the amygdala and hippocampus; both are parts of the limbic system. The amygdala is responsible for many aspects of one’s behavior including emotions, aggression, and sensory processing. The hippocampus is also responsible for things including learning, memory, and the integration of sensory information.


According to Dr. Bauman, the amygdala and hippocampus are functioning in autistic individuals; but they are less developed. For example, a 10-year old child may have an amygdala similar to a three-year old. Interestingly, those with Asperger Syndrome and high functioning autism have abnormalities in their amygdala, but they have little or no abnormalities in their hippocampus. In other words, intellectual functioning (associated with the hippocampus) is only mildly impaired or not impaired at all; however, emotional functioning (associated with the amygdala) is impaired and may be responsible for immature emotional reactions in social situations.


By taking into account one’s social-emotional age, and not intellectual age, it may be much easier to understand why the individual acts the way he/she does. Additionally, it may be much easier to develop ways to help individuals who have discrepancies between their social-emotional level and their intellectual level. By being aware of possible differences, one can teach these individuals how to behave appropriately in different social-emotional situations.

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We can understand the behavior of autistic children by considering their social-emotional age -  we ask how do children with Autism or Asperger's syndrome act in social and emotional situations?