"Why on earth would I want to do that?": The Basics of Social Motivation in Autism Spectrum Disorders


Differences in social development are among the core symptoms which define autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In the last few years, the Social Motivation Theory of autism has gained broad acceptance to explain some of the reasons why children with ASD may not profit from their social learning opportunities.

In 2012, several CAR faculty members published a scientific review which indicates that individuals with ASD might be able to engage with social cues, but are less motivated to do so than their neurotypical peers.

Although children receive some explicit social instruction from their parents or caregivers, most social learning happens implicitly, from observation and experience. Children interpret positive social responses- a smile, a hug- as “rewards” and then repeat those behaviors.  The social motivation model suggests children with ASD have altered reward pathways in the brain, and do not feel as rewarded by the act of engaging with others. This reduces motivation for social experiences, and sets in motion a negative spiral of missing out on social learning opportunities which leads to fewer social rewards and even less interest in social interactions. In the authors’ words, “when social information is not prioritized, there are profound, cascading effects on learning about — and from — the social world”1.

Researchers across various disciplines- from neuroscience, biology, psychology and education – are using this framework to help inform their understanding of how behavioral or pharmaceutical therapies might be developed to target the motivational component of social skills- rather than focusing only on teaching specific social skills. In this way, it opens the door to powerful social learning opportunities by making the social information in children’s environment more meaningful and rewarding. To read a full commentary on Social Motivation, check out this article from SFARI’s “Spectrum” blog.