Interpersonal Relationships and Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Perspectives from Theory of Mind and Neuroscience

Authored by: Robyn M. Gillies

Handbook of Educational Psychology and Students with Special Needs

Print publication date:  February  2020
Online publication date:  February  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138295421
eBook ISBN: 9781315100654
Adobe ISBN:


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Children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are well known to have difficulties communicating at an interpersonal level with others. In schools, this can present a challenge for teachers where learning is very dependent on the relationships they can build with students and students can build with each other. The difficulties individuals with ASD encounter include recognizing social cues such as those derived from eye contact, gestures, smiles, and similar ways of communicating nonverbally, as well as those obtained from interacting verbally with others such as being able to engage in reciprocal interactions, understanding others’ perspectives, and recognizing others’ emotional states. Other difficulties that have been well documented include restrictive and repetitive patterns of behavior, fixated interests, and difficulties adjusting to changes in routines. These patterns of behavior emerge in early childhood and have been characterized as a lack of understanding of not only one’s mind but also the minds of others—or what is commonly referred to as a theory of mind (ToM). Alongside this theoretical lens, there are also neuroscientific perspectives that are helpful to consider. Accordingly, this chapter reviews research on ToM; recent developments in neuroscience that may help to explain the difficulties children and adolescents with ASD have in understanding others’ thoughts, intentions, and feelings; the role of the brain’s default network that is active when individuals work on tasks that are internally focused and possible implications for individuals with ASD; and the effects of social skills training on developing interpersonal relationships. The chapter’s focus is also on social skills programs that have strong evidence-based practices that have consistently demonstrated positive outcomes for children and adolescents with ASD.

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