Understanding Social Motivation in Autism

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that affects how a person communicates, interacts, behaves, and learns. One key aspect of autism is differences in social motivation – the intrinsic desire to connect with others. This article explores what social motivation is, how it impacts autistic individuals, and strategies to support social skills development.

Understanding Social Motivation in Autism
Understanding Social Motivation in Autism

What is Social Motivation?

Social motivation refers to our innate drive for social interaction, connection, and acceptance from others. It fuels much of human behavior and development.

In neurotypical individuals, social motivation emerges early. Infants instinctively smile, coo, and seek to engage caregivers. Toddlers eagerly imitate parents, wanting attention and praise. School-aged children prioritize friendships, status, and approval from peers. Teens and adults continue working to be included, respected, and valued in social groups and society.

To gain social rewards like inclusion, prestige, and advancement, neurotypical people closely observe and imitate others’ behaviors, speech, dress, and more. They modify their actions to align with socially accepted norms and roles. The desire for social acceptance shapes much of life. It drives learning, achievement, and major life choices.

How Social Motivation Differs in Autism

However, research shows autistic individuals have innate differences in social motivation. Their brains are simply not wired to be intrinsically rewarded by social inclusion or acceptance to the same degree.

As a result, autistic children pay less attention to social cues, show less interest in imitation play, and aren’t driven to follow social rules or roles. Instead of focusing outward on others’ expectations, autistic children are more inwardly focused on their own preferences and interests.

Several social-cognitive differences emerge from lower social motivation:

  • Theory of mind – difficulty inferring others’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions
  • Imitation skills – less mimicking of others’ actions and behaviors
  • Communication – challenges with verbal and nonverbal language
  • Empathy – issues imagining others’ experiences and feelings
  • Play skills – less engagement in socially cooperative play

Additionally, autistic people aren’t compelled into action by social rewards or consequences. They are less likely to act solely to gain others’ praise or acceptance. And social punishments like rejection, shame, or exclusion have less impact.

While autistic people feel loneliness and desire social connection, they are simply less driven by peer attention and approval. As a result, social motivation strategies that work for neurotypical children are less effective for those with autism.

The Impact on Learning and Development

Differences in social motivation significantly impact early learning and development. Young children learn largely by observing and imitating others. But autistic toddlers focus less on people and social cues in their environment.

As a result, autistic children often miss out on incidental social learning. They may miss nonverbal signals, unspoken rules, two-way conversations, cooperative play norms, and more. Delays compound over time, especially in language, social skills, play, and behavior.

Even in autistic people with average or high intelligence, social skills often remain uneven and immature. These social gaps cause ongoing challenges with:

  • Friendships – making and keeping friends
  • School – meeting social-behavioral expectations
  • Jobs – workplace social conduct and norms
  • Independent living – handling finances, self-care, household duties
  • Relationships – dating, romantic partnerships, parenting

Without targeted help, the disconnect between intellectual abilities and social skills continues into adulthood. Many autistic adults, especially those with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, have significant difficulty navigating adult social roles and expectations.

Strategies to Support Social Motivation

While it’s not possible to entirely reshape an autistic child’s inner social drives, various strategies can support motivation and social skills development:

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy

  • Uses rewards to motivate and reinforce positive social behaviors
  • Helps teach appropriate skills through repetition and consistency
  • Focuses on communication, play, imitation, eye contact and more
  • Most effective started early, from ages 3-7

Social Skills Training

  • Directly teaches social interaction skills like greetings, conversation, play, friendship skills
  • Uses role playing, modeling, and peer practice to build skills
  • Targets specific challenges based on child’s needs
  • Useful for kids, teens, and adults

Visual Supports and Social Stories

  • Uses images, videos, and social stories to demonstrate desired behaviors
  • Makes the implicit “rules” of social situations more concrete and explicit
  • Helps autistic kids understand expected behaviors and social cues

Peer-Mediated Instruction

  • Peers model age-appropriate social skills during play and activities
  • Helps autistic kids learn through observing and collaborating with peers
  • Shows the natural value of social interaction with classmates

Parent and Teacher Coaching

  • Trains parents and teachers in motivational strategies tailored for autism
  • Focuses on child’s unique interests to encourage social engagement
  • Provides consistent support across home and school

While autistic children have inherent differences in social motivation, targeted interventions can go a long way to improving social interaction skills, friendships, and inclusion. With the right support, autistic kids can gain the social competence needed to keep reaching their full potential.

Get World-Class ABA Therapy for Your Child in Maryland

If your child is on the autism spectrum, the expert ABA therapists at Jade ABA Therapy are here to help. We provide customized ABA programs to meet each child’s needs, with a strengths-based approach that builds social skills while nurturing your child’s unique gifts and talents.

Our compassionate, highly trained therapists will become trusted partners throughout your ABA therapy journey. Let us help your child gain social confidence, independence, and the brightest possible future.

Call Jade ABA Therapy today at (410) 616-0901 to get started!

Get In Touch

Phone: (410) 616-0901 Email: info@jadeaba.org


Burnside, K., Wright, K., & Poulin-Dubois, D. (2017). Social motivation and implicit theory of mind in children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism Research, 10(11), 1834-1844. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.1836

Chevallier, C., Kohls, G., Troiani, V., Brodkin, E. S., & Schultz, R. T. (2012). The social motivation theory of autism. Trends in cognitive sciences, 16(4), 231-239. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2012.02.007

Koegel, L. K., Singh, A. K., & Koegel, R. L. (2010). Improving motivation for academics in children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 40(9), 1057-1066. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-010-0962-6

Schultz, R. T., Klin, A., & Jones, W. (2012). Social motivation, reward, and the roots of autism. The Spectrum.

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