It is well known that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) do not excel in social situations, in part because they do not find social interaction rewarding. A recent study reveals a new piece of this puzzle. The study found that children with ASD do not adjust quickly to a lack of reward, unlike their typically developing peers. The findings could lead to new interventions to help people with ASD navigate social issues.
The researchers evaluated how 36 boys aged 8 to 11—half with ASD and half typically developing—responded in anticipation of a reward. To track their response, the researchers affixed electrodes to the boys’ hands. Electrodes measure how well the skin conducts electricity. Skin is more conductive when sweat pools on the skin, a sign of excitement and anticipation.
The boys played a computer game in which they pressed a number on a keyboard that corresponded to a number on a screen. The game progressed in three phases. In the first phase, the boys received a nickel for each correct answer. In the second phase, the boys saw an encouraging video clip from their parents or a stranger for each correct answer. In the third phase, there was no reward for a correct answer.
For most of the game, the boys with ASD and the typically developing boys exhibited similar responses. Both groups gave the fastest responses when they earned nickels. The strength and frequency of the boys’ responses to nickels and to praise from a stranger decreased over time, but both groups demonstrated a consistent response to parental encouragement.
The boys with ASD reacted differently in the phase of the game that had no rewards. While the typically developing boys quickly stopped anticipating rewards, the evidence suggests that the boys with ASD did not adjust as fast. The boys with ASD had an initial increase in their response rate followed by a drop in response. This indicates that typically developing children are better able to adjust their expectations in changing circumstances, but that children with ASD struggle to do so.
The findings suggest that learning to adjust to a lack of reward could be a key part of understanding why people with ASD do not feel rewarded by social interactions.
This research is published in the journal Autism Research.
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