An impairment in social reciprocity is a major hallmark of autism. Although social reciprocity skills come naturally to many typically developing children, most children with autism struggle greatly with numerous aspects of social interaction. Many children with autism do display a desire for some form of social interaction, but do not have the skills to engage appropriately or may be overwhelmed by the process. As a result of their impairments, they might not be able to express their wants and needs, fulfil their desire for social interaction, or learn effectively from their environment and their society (Chasson & Jarosiewicz, 2014).
Social reciprocity refers to the back-and-forth flow of social interaction, where your behaviour influences and is influenced by the behaviour of your child or interaction partner, and vice versa. It is a crucial set of skills for your child to develop to understand how and when to initiate or respond to others’ social interactions. For typically developing children, social reciprocal skills emerge in infancy and develop in complexity over the growing years. It is crucial for children to progress through the developmental milestones for social reciprocity to learn how to communicate effectively with the society around them (Schwartz et al., 2021). However, many children with autism often get stuck in the earlier stages of reciprocal skills development, and might never achieve an understanding of the most complex concepts of social reciprocal skills.
Numerous basic social reciprocal skills develop in infancy for typically developing infants, such as exchanging smiles with adults, and showing interest in interacting with others. In the first few months of life, neurotypical infants should develop eye contact, and be able to focus attention on your face. Around 8-9 months of age, imitation skills and joint attention also gradually emerge in infants (My ASD Child, n.d.). Imitation skills refer to the ability to mirror and repeat the actions of others, while joint attention concerns the ability of your infant to pay attention to the same object at the same time with you. For example, if you suddenly look to your left with an astonished look on your face, your child might follow your gaze to look at what surprised you.
These basic social reciprocal skills build the foundation for children to attend to the people around them, since most learning at this age, such as play skills, motor skills and language, occurs through social interactions. If your child does not display any of these basic social reciprocal skills from an early age, they might experience developmental delays in certain areas due to greatly reduced opportunities for learning.
In young children:
As children start to play together, we begin to observe the social reciprocal skills of turn-taking and object sharing. Turn-taking is an important aspect of communication development as it exposes children to the back-and-forth exchange structure of social interactions between people. More types of non-verbal communication emerge, such as facial expressions, tone of voice and more sophisticated gestures, greatly expanding children’s communication abilities. Reciprocal engagement, the inclination to pay attention to people instead of only paying attention to objects, also continues to develop. With reciprocal engagement, typically developing children learn to pay sustained attention to people, allowing them to learn more complex knowledge and skills from their social interactions.
Children with autism that do not display developmentally appropriate turn-taking, non-verbal communication and reciprocal engagement skills often struggle with communicating their wants, needs and interests. Poor experiences with prior social interactions further discourage them from initiating and responding to future social interactions, spiralling into a vicious cycle of negative social interactions.
From pre-school to middle childhood:
More advanced social reciprocal skills develop in middle childhood, allowing typically developing children to better understand other people’s goals and intentions. They also develop the skills and motivation to share emotions with other people. When children participate to achieve a common goal, e.g. build a Lego car together, or engage in a conversation about what to eat for lunch, they display a willingness to interact, negotiate and emotionally connect.
Possessing complex social reciprocal skills allow children to fully enjoy social interactions and increase their motivation to engage socially and emotionally. Children with autism that are not able to express their desires might develop tantrums or aggression in response to frustration and experience difficulties with emotional self-regulation and understanding emotion (Chasson & Jarosiewicz, 2014).
Given that social reciprocal skills continually develop throughout childhood and are crucial for children to learn effectively and communicate meaningfully, it is vital to catch early warning signs of impairments in social reciprocity by regularly monitoring your child’s developmental milestones. Early intervention helps to reduce the severity of developmental delays caused by unaddressed social reciprocity impairments, allowing your child to enjoy and experience social interactions, express their wants and needs, and learn effectively from their environment.
Written by Hazel.
Chasson, G., & Jarosiewicz, S. R. (2014). Social competence impairments in autism spectrum disorders. Comprehensive guide to Autism, 1099-1108.
Promoting social reciprocity in younger children with Asperger’s and HFA. (n.d.). My ASD Child. https://www.myaspergerschild.com/2014/03/promoting-social-reciprocity-in-younger.html
Schwartz, L., Beamish, W., & McKay, L. (2021). Understanding social-emotional reciprocity in autism: Viewpoints shared by teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education (Online), 46(1), 24-38.