BEHAVIOR & SOCIO-EMOTIONAL
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
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.
Copyright The purpose of this copyright is to
protect your right to make free copies of this paper for your friends
and colleagues, to prevent publishers from using it for commercial
advantage, and to prevent ill-meaning people from altering the meaning
of the document by changing or removing a few paragraphs.
Reproduction kindly allowed by www.autism.org
Visit their site for more useful resources.
Click here for the full
range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org