Major autism study supports ‘social motivation theory’

Encouraging young children with autism to communicate with others could strengthen communication and social bonding skills in later life, a major study has revealed.

The research, published by the University of Delaware, adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that understanding and implementing ‘social motivation theory’ could improve social outcomes for people on the autism spectrum.

‘Social motivation theory’ is a commonly cited idea that suggests that autistic children who do not “prioritise” or “seek out” social interactions could miss out on opportunities to practice and develop language skills.

Launching the research, the authors said “identifying potential factors that can predict later language development is crucial to understanding why some children with autism spectrum disorder successfully develop language while others do not”.

For example, about one-third of children with autism never develop the language that they need in different day-to-day situations.

The study looked at 87 children with autism, aged between 14 and 31 months, over a two-year period. It was found that children with “relatively stronger social motivation” had “relatively better language” at the end of the study.

It was suggested that in the majority of cases, parents of children with better language skills may have used “frequent intentional communication” to motivate others to talk with their children more often, facilitating the children’s language understanding.

Although further research is needed, the authors said this study could provide guidance “for parents who want to help their children learn to talk”.

“Parents could look for intentional communication from their children and respond by talking to their children. Effective intervention on both parent and child targets will likely enhance treatment efficacy. Future work is needed to test these ideas,” said the authors.

According to the latest statistics, autism affects around one in every 100 people, meaning there are around 700,000 individuals on the autism spectrum in the UK.

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