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Social Motivation Theories of Autism: Is Insensitivity to Social Reward Really the Problem? (Iser DeLeon)

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.
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Iser DeLeon, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Presented at the 2018 Michigan Autism Conference
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