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When "Sweetness" and "Passivity" Mask Social Difficulties in Autism

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

Photo by Meg on Unsplash

I have the opportunity to read through multiple school records for adolescent clients. One striking theme is that students who are soft-spoken and passive in interactons are often described by teachers as exhibiting pro-social behavior. That is, the student is not socially disruptive, and, therefore, is viewed as having intact, or even advanced, social skills as compared with other teens. She doesn't seek drama, gossip, or stir up social trouble.

Interestingly, if an actual behavioral analysis is performed, I often find contrary descriptions of the same student. For example, a psychologist sitting in class to observe the student's behavior may paint a different picture. "The student immediately sat in her chair and began working on the math problem written on the board. Peers around her were socializing before the class officially started but she didn't join in. When the teacher asks students to work in groups, the student did not initiate any attempts to join her peers. She only joined a group once she was specifically asked to by another student."

In the area of autism spectrum, the difficulty with social behavior may be either behavior that is too aggressive or too passive. Can the individual actively engage in social approach and interaction with peers. Does the person understand how to start a friendship. Is this an individual who waits for "friends" to contact her, or does she actively maintain relationships by reaching out for ongoing connection?

Best Practice Autism: The Gender Gap (; Dec 2017) reviews the work of Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP, a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist. The article notes, "Social communication and pragmatic deficits may not be readily apparent in girls because of a non-externalizing behavioral profile, passivity, and lack of initiative. Girls who have difficulty making sustained eye contact and appear socially withdrawn may also be perceived as 'shy,' 'naive,' or 'sweet' rather than having the social impairment associated with an autism spectrum disorder."

Although the article emphasizes the gender gap as contributing, this phenomenon of missing autistic characteristics may impact any individual with a tendency toward internalization of distress and social passivity. Our ability to detect those who silently struggle must improve in order to more accurately diagnose difficulty and offer appropriate interventions and support.


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