International Meeting for Autism Research (London, May 15-17, 2008): Social Motivation In Autism

Social Motivation In Autism

Friday, May 16, 2008
Champagne Terrace/Bordeaux (Novotel London West)
10:30 AM
G. M. Fiske , Communication Sciences & Disorders, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
A. E. Booth , Communication Sciences & Disorders, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

Autism was originally described as involving a lack of motivation for social interaction[1].  Social motivation has not figured prominently in subsequent theorizing regarding this disorder. Instead, theory of mind deficits have taken center stage. This is surprising because social motivation deficits appear early, and might prove to be both specific to, and universal in, autism.

[1] Volkmar & Klin, (2005)
  1. Do children with autism exhibit deficient social motivation in a controlled setting?
  2. What is the relationship between social motivation and theory of mind competence?


15 3-5-year-old children with autism (ASD) and 16 age-matched typically developing (TD) children participated.  Measures of social motivation included: looks to experimenter, forced choice between social and nonsocial interaction a) with a toy and b) to obtain a desired food item, and score on the Dimensions of Mastery Questionnaire. Measures of theory of mind competence assessed imitation, joint attention, and understanding of desire, intentionality and false belief. All required minimal language skills. The PPVT-IV and the Vineland Social-Emotional Early Childhood Scales were administered.

Results:            The ASD children looked at, and obtained food from, an experimenter less frequently than did TD children.  Parents reported that ASD children were less motivated to interact with others. ASD children were impaired on the joint attention and understanding of desire tasks, but not on imitation, or understanding of intentionality or false belief. Few relations between performance on the social motivation and theory of mind tasks were detected. However, a significant correlation did emerge between social motivation and receptive language in the ASD group. 

Conclusions:            The ASD group exhibited deficient social motivation. Evidence for impairments in theory of mind was less consistent, and was not tightly linked to impairments in social motivation. The current results highlight the promise of social motivation deficits in explaining symptoms of autism.