What is social-emotional reciprocity?
Social-emotional reciprocity is the back-and-forth interaction that takes place in communication. We take a social approach to having conversations with others, and we share our interests in our conversations with others. Part of that social-emotional reciprocity is knowing how and when to initiate or respond to others' social interactions.
Some of the skills necessary to engage in social-emotional reciprocity include:
- Talking to someone
- Making eye contact
- Demonstrating something
- Using a chart or graph
- Writing a note, email, etc.
Let’s examine some foundational skills that underlie these methods of information sharing.
One of the basic skills involved in social-emotional reciprocity is joint attention. This typically develops in the first year or two of life. Joint attention is actively paying attention to the same object or activity at the same time with another person. We see babies do this all the time. As you're holding a baby, for example, and he hears an airplane in the sky and sees you look up, he'll also look up to see what it is. He may point at the airplane and look back at you, wanting you to look back at that. This tends to be a skill that children with autism are missing. The lack of joint attention may be one of the early signs of autism.
Imitation is another basic skill for social-emotional reciprocity. Parents, teachers, and peers are all people that young children will imitate. Imitation is one of the ways that children learn. If children with autism have that break in that social-emotional reciprocity, if they have that break in that ability to imitate others, then their social communication is negatively impacted.
Once we have joint attention in place and we have imitation in place, then we usually enter into that reciprocal engagement. Again, it's the back and forth that we need to maintain long enough to learn something, enjoy something, and share something with another person. It's paying attention to people versus paying attention to objects. Children with autism have a tendency to focus strongly on objects. Objects are much more predictable than people and much easier for them to understand because of the deficits in their social communication.
Another area that can be affected by social communication is non-verbal communication. This would include facial expressions, as well as the tone of voice. Using a single finger to point to an object is a non-verbal gesture that's important for young children to develop. You'll see very young children indicating what they want by pointing to it. They'll look at the object and then they'll look back at their caregiver to say, "Hey, pay attention to this. This is what I want. I'm pointing right at it." This often happens even before they can tell you the name of the object. Eye contact is a significant part of non-verbal communication and is often something that children with autism will try to avoid. Maintaining eye contact with someone is very uncomfortable for them, mainly because of that gap in their social and communicative abilities. We need to teach them ways that they can use their gestures or behaviors so that they can communicate their wants, their needs, and their interests.
This Ask the Expert is an edited excerpt from a course entitled, Autism Basics, by Kimberly Norris, MEd.