According to the National Research Council (2001), children with autism have major difficulties in both their social and emotional relationships in a number of areas.

  • They have low rates of social initiation with and response to peers.
  • They show little nonverbal communication. Gesturing and emotional expression may be absent.
  • They pay less attention to others’ emotional displays than do their typical peers.
  • They show less empathy or shared emotion.

One particularly important social deficit in children with autism is that they fail to develop joint attention skills. According to Mundy and Stella (2000), joint attention is the “tendency to use eye contact, affect, and gestures for the singularly social purpose of sharing experiences with others” (p. 55).

The majority of children with autism show differences in emotional understanding as well. Sigman and her colleagues (1992, 1999) found that children with autism were less responsive to adults who pretended to injure themselves. They spent less time looking at the injured adult and were rated as showing less empathy than either typically developing children or children with Down syndrome. Sigman and Ruskin (1999) concluded that children with autism generally show a lack of social attention and are particularly deficient in attending to the faces of other people.

Children with autism also have particular difficulty in their social relationships with peers. When Sigman and Ruskin (1999) compared children with autism to children with developmental delays, they found that the children with autism played in isolation significantly more often. When these children were at recess, much of their time was spent in self-stimulatory activities rather than in play with others. Although they sometimes attempted to interact with other children, they initiated contact and responded to contact less frequently than children with other disabilities. When children with autism did participate in social activities with other children and made social bids, those bids were accepted as frequently as those of other children. Once they began social interchanges, they lasted as long as those of other children.