Reciprocity & the Social Contract

Posted: January 6th, 2009 under interventions, life on the spectrum, opinion, socialization.
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The basis of a healthy social contract between individuals is reciprocity.  At root, individuals bond–as family members, friends, lovers–because they give each other pleasure.  The more pleasure–and the more equal the sharing–the closer the bond.

The game starts at birth.   Adults must start it, as they are the more competent partner (or should be.)  Given the average infant, the average advice on child-rearing results in a baby who soon realizes that people make him feel safe and comfortable and happy.  Within weeks, the baby is responding to this with signs of happiness as well as notices of “something’s wrong, fix it!”    Caring adults are then rewarded by the baby’s joy.  They like the smiles, the coos, the wiggly arms and legs, all the signals that the baby is happy and likes having them around.

Adults then intensify their attempts to get these happy reactions from the baby, repeating the ones that work–because they’re enjoying the baby just as the baby is enjoying them.    Before the average baby is a year old, he knows that adults take pleasure in him–some of the time–and can tell when he’s pleased an adult.   Average babies begin consciously seeking to please their adults at least some of the time–more if the adults are also playing fair, not demanding more than the baby can give.  (Adults have longer attention spans, and often want babies to interact longer than the baby can.)

This is the basis of healthy social motivation.

Healthy adults know that other people can be a source of pleasure, and know the rules of their culture for getting a good reaction from others.    They treat others pleasantly,  expecting a good result most of the time, and are neither pushovers nor bullies.

When something keeps an infant from responding “normally” to those first contacts with adults, that game of sharing pleasure back and forth can fall apart.   The baby may not get a feeling of safety, comfort, and pleasure from the same adult actions that work for average babies.  The parent, faced with an infant who rejects baby-book advice–who grins and chortles when a fan comes on, but cries when sung a lullaby–may become frustrated and angry.   They may assume the baby is being difficult on purpose, trying to get on their nerves.   Here the reciprocity is not pleasure, but distress, and both are learning that the other guy is not playing fair.

As this child grows older, he experiences more discomfort, more misery: he learns that other people do not provide comfort and fun and joy,  but make inexplicable demands and always seem angry or upset with him.   Pleasure may only come when he is alone, and (in some therapy systems, in particular) he is almost never alone–he is always being harassed (in his mind) to do tasks that make no sense to him.    The more difficult a child is to comfort and share pleasure with, the harder it is for adults to take pleasure in the child–so in addition to not experiencing others as a source of pleasure, these  children may not know that anyone could take pleasure in them–that they are capable of giving pleasure.    One parent of an autist told me, many years ago,  “I can’t reward him for doing something I like because he never does anything I like!”

Consider what that feels like to the child–a child already, neurologically, finding it harder to grasp the social signals we give each other.   Autistic children are sensitive to anger and fear: if they experience other people as radiating anger and fear (which, at a young age, they cannot possibly understand), and never or rarely receive pleasure from others, and no not know they can be a source of pleasure….they have no basis for desiring more contact with people.    Why would they care what others think?  Why would they want to get close to people, when they’ve experienced people as a source of discomfort, demands they can’t understand or meet?  How can they possibly learn to understand others, feel compassion for them, when they’ve never felt understood,  felt that someone had treated them compassionately?

Neurologically normal children from dysfunctional families can get to the same point–asocial, anti-social, not caring about others, etc.– without a neurological disability.

What can adults do?    A lot.   Just understanding that it’s essential for all children to experience human contact as safe, comforting, and pleasant, and to know that they can and do give pleasure to others,  is a start.   Then it’s a matter of the adult figuring out what,  for the individual child,  makes that child feel safe and comfortable, what gives that child pleasure.   It’s not the same for all children–and that includes autistic children.     Make sure that every day the child gets enough comfort, enough pleasure–enough to counteract the necessary (for all children) negatives.

Autistic children have the potential to be loving, caring individuals–but like all other children, they learn how by being loved and cared for in a way that works for them.   Without reciprocity of pleasure, there cannot be a healthy social contract.  Note that “healthy.”   There are unhealthy social bonds based on sharing negative, damaging feelings: fear, anger, humiliation, pain.

Helping a neurologically different child discover that it’s worth the struggle (and it is harder for them!) to reach out to others, learn social skills, move out into the world is more difficult–but worth it.   Somewhere I still have a picture of our son riding a friend’s horse, a big grin splitting his face.   I’ve shown that to other parents and asked “How often does your child look  like this?  This happy?”   That matters.    Find a way to elicit that kind of grin–and show that you like the grin.  Do it again.  And again.  Build the bond.


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  • Comment by sari — January 8, 2009 @ 8:30 pm


    There is a flip side to this. Parents may spend so much time trying to keep the child on an even keel that the parents become unable to respond in a spontaneous, healthy manner. They fear upsetting the child or causing a tantrum. When an entire house must walk on eggshells, and let’s face it, that’s what the homes of many autists are like, one person dictates the terms of the relationship: the autist. In the process s/he fails to learn that other people have needs and that those needs sometimes need to take precedence.


  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 9, 2009 @ 1:07 am


    I must have been unclear again if you construe creating a setting in which a child can achieve a reciprocal social bond as allowing one person to “dictate the terms of the relationship” and fail to consider the needs of others at a level appropriate to their developmental age. (A week-old infant is not expected to be aware of, or care about, the needs of others.)

    The most helpful professional encounter I ever had was at a pediatric neurology conference when I attended a presentation by a physical therapist–her presentation brought a roomful of professionals to tears. I buttonholed her to ask “How can we help our son “widen” the knife-edge he’s on emotionally? What techniques do we use to widen that fragile emotional stability?”

    Her presentation had pointed out the strong (and unbreakable) connection between the amygdala and surrounding tissues in the brain, and the rest of neural function…that, unless the patient was comfortable, not scared, not hurting, not angry, not stressed, it was impossible to get an accurate assessment of true function. That first, therapists should make the patient *comfortable*, deal with the emotional issues, before perturbing that comfort with active therapies.

    Her recommendations to me brought results (incremental, but distinct) when I got home and started using them. It’s not a matter of letting the person (autist or not) “dictate the terms of the relationship” but of enabling the person to form a reciprocal social bond in which he/she can learn that “other people have needs” by having his/her own needs met.

    The primary social bond–the primary understanding that others can be a source of safety/comfort/pleasure and so can the person receiving these things–is foundational to all healthy social interaction, and also to using positive reinforcement to shape behavior. (You have to know what, precisely, is a positive reinforcer for that person. The same thing–like the bare room you mentioned in another comment–can be a punishment for one and a reward for another.)

  • Comment by Sari — January 9, 2009 @ 7:50 am


    You were very clear. I am saying that the feedback loop can be disrupted in either direction. Parents, mothers in particular, suffer high rates of depression. The child may progress only to find a parent unable to take joy in his achievements.

    I’ve observed many parents who, lacking positive feedback from their *children*, lose the capacity to create or reinstate positive social bonds with those children. It’s not that the parents don’t care; most do. Many go to great lengths to provide the necessary environment and become slaves to their children’s routines, therapies, sensory issues, etc. They also become afraid to laugh, smile, talk or engage in any behavior that might upset the child. When a child self-injures to the point of ER visits, for instance, damage control becomes paramount. Others simply give up and dump their kids on the public schools or worse.

    I am not saying that the autist consciously dictates the terms of the relationship but that any time one person’s needs take precedence over everyone else’s, the relationship becomes unbalanced.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 9, 2009 @ 6:46 pm


    You’re right that the feedback loop can be broken on either end. But when one of the ends is a child, it’s the responsibility of the adult end to fix any problem the adult has. The child–especially the child with a problem (whether autism or something else–autism isn’t the only thing that impairs formation of the primary social bond)–is not capable of fixing it.

    Not saying it’s easy–it certainly is not–and not saying that even at best this creates a perfectly smooth relationship. There are moments of frantic despair anyway–but understanding what the goal is, and a little about how to get there, does offer some hope. It’s still a boatload of work and takes longer than with kids who don’t have problems.

    What I’ve seen is adults (parents, therapists, teachers) who do not understand what the essential nature of the loop is, and thus expend great effort–work themselves to burnout and hopelessness–doing things that don’t work because the initial conditions for success–that first experience of reciprocity–isn’t there. This isn’t an attack on them–they’re trying until they drop–but a lack of knowledge. My opinion anyway.

  • Comment by sari — January 10, 2009 @ 7:25 pm


    I’ve seen it both ways: parents/caregivers who, for whatever reason, give up and throw their kids away, and those who look for any chink in the armor, so to speak, in hopes of seeding a relationship.

    Finding that chink isn’t so easy when the child is totally non-responsive to outside stimuli. In some cases the child’s hardwiring (severe retardation and/or comorbid disorders) leave caregivers so exhausted that they switch into survival mode. And, while I agree that most behaviors serve a function, some seem to serve none -and- seem impossible to unteach or substitute.

    IOW, there may be no forward progress even when parents/caregivers understand the nature of the loop.

    You might enjoy Steve Gutstein’s “Autism, Aspergers: Solving the Relationship Puzzle”. Your philosophies are very similar.

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