Social Motivation Theories of Autism: Is Insensitivity to Social Reward Really the Problem?

Iser DeLeon


A presentation by Dr. Iser DeLeon delivered at the 2018 Michigan Autism Conference

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Some theories of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) implicate a neurobiologically driven insensitivity to social reward as the basis for social deficits, and less directly, other core diagnostic features of ASD. This is sometimes referred to as the Social Motivation Theory of Autism and has, on occasion, been used to justify avoiding social reinforcers when working with individuals with ASD. I will review and discuss evidence, from my lab and others’, for and against this insensitivity. I will specifically consider: (a) studies on identifying or verifying socially-mediated reinforcers in ASD; (b) studies that compare social and nonsocial reinforcers in ASD; and (c) studies that compare social reward in persons with and without ASD. I will conclude with alternative interpretations and questions that need to be answered to make sense of these theories.

About the Speaker

Dr. Iser DeLeon earned his Ph.D. at the University of Florida, where he is now a Professor of Psychology. Recent prior positions of his include Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Director of Research Development for the Department of Behavioral Psychology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. Dr. DeLeon currently serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. In addition, he is on the Board of Directors of the Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and has served as Associate Editor for both the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis and the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. Over the past 15 years, Dr. DeLeon’s research has been supported by several private and federal agencies, including the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. This research has focused on assessment and treatment of aberrant behavior in persons with neurodevelopmental disorders, identification of preferences and determinants of choice, and translation of basic behavioral processes towards enhancing therapeutic and instructional outcomes.

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