Module 5: Common Social Interaction Characteristics of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)


So far, we have discussed atypical behaviors in communication and behavior. In this module, we will discuss unusual social interaction characteristics that you may note in an individual with ASD.

Module 5 Objectives

  • List common social interactions characteristics of ASD.
  • Describe specific examples of unusual social behavior that might influence interactions between you and people with ASD during the line of duty.

Module 5 Topics

  • What are the typical social interaction characteristics of ASD?
  • What specific social interaction traits might indicate that an individual may have ASD?

Difficulty with social interaction

All individuals with ASD have difficulty with some form of social interactions. Difficulty with social interaction is required for the diagnosis of ASD. Even when capable of initiating social interactions (for example, requesting help from an officer), some people with ASD may still avoid social interaction even when they need something like help, food, access to a specific item, etc. During social interactions, they may avoid eye contact, social smiling, and unnecessary aspects of the conversation. For example:

  • Person with ASD: "Help home?" while looking at ground.
  • Officer: "You need help getting home? Where do you live?"
  • Person with ASD: "I live at 123 Street Dr." while looking at ground.
  • Officer: "Okay, I'll take you there. Where is your mother?"
  • Person with ASD: "I live at 123 Street Dr." while looking at ground and appearing to become agitated and starting to flap hands.

The following are a few examples of social characteristics that you may encounter when interacting with an individual with ASD.

  • May not look at the officer or maintain eye contact

    Individuals with ASD often have difficulty with eye contact. They may turn their head or take other steps to actively avoid eye contact, such as covering their face. An individual with ASD may look in your general direction, but they may look over your head or slightly to the side. Some individuals will do this, even if they are able to answer your questions. People with ASD that have typical or even superior intelligence have described eye contact as "painful" and "stressful."

  • May act as though he or she does not hear or see anyone

    The individual may appear to be unaware of the officer or surroundings. The person may act as though they do not see or hear anyone, and may show no awareness that the officer is trying to talk to him. Interestingly, the term "autism" is taken from the Greek word that means "self" because individuals with ASD often appear to be isolated or lost within themselves.

  • May not initiate interactions

    Some individuals with ASD may not initiate social interactions. For example:

    • They may not try to start conversations
    • They may not give a greeting or ask for help, such as saying "Hi" or "Can you help me?"
    • They may not ask polite questions, such as "How are you?" or "What is your name?"
  • May not carry on typical conversations

    Conversations involve a back-and-forth dialogue between one or more people. During that dialogue, those involved in the conversation stay on the topic of the conversation, ask questions, answer questions, and remark on comments of others.

    Some individuals with ASD have not learned those typical conversational interactions. Other individuals with ASD may avoid such interactions even though they have the ability. Regardless of why, here are a few examples of atypical conversational patterns that you may note in interactions with persons with ASD:

    • They may not answer direct questions.
    • They may respond by repeating all or part of the question (echolalia, see Module 3).
    • They may ask off-topic questions, or make comments unrelated to the situation at hand.
    • They may ask the same question over and over, even though that question has been answered.
      • Officer: "What is your name?"
      • Response: "Blue, blue, blue, blue. Blue shirt. Blue car."
      • Officer: "Why do you keep saying blue?"
      • Response: "Why is your car and your shirt blue?"
      • Officer: "So people will know I am a police officer and can help them."
      • Response: "Why is your car and your shirt blue?"
  • May become upset if touched

    Some individuals with ASD do not like normally acceptable forms of physical contact, such as handshakes, a touch on the shoulder, or a hug. In fact, attempts to touch a person with ASD may trigger screaming or hitting the person who is trying to touch him. Some individuals with ASD have described physical contact as painful, or feeling a burning sensation when touched.

  • May become agitated if you attempt to interact

    The more you attempt to interact with someone with ASD, the more agitated the person may become. He may go to great lengths to avoid looking at you, or being close to you. For example, if you attempt to interact or move close to an individual with ASD, he or she may:

    • Run, or move away.
    • Begin engaging in the types of repetitive behaviors we discussed in Module 4, such as hitting himself, rocking, or whining.
    • Cry.

It is important to understand that these unusual behaviors are not meant to be disrespectful, mocking, or purposefully disobedient. In most cases involving people with ASD, these behaviors are not likely to indicate that the individual is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. More likely these behaviors simply reflect an essential aspect of ASD – difficulty maintaining normal social interactions. Some of these behaviors may be due to the neurological problems associated with ASD. Some of these behaviors may be learned over time as an effective way to avoid interactions with others. Some of these behaviors may reflect the fact that the individual has not yet learned complex social behaviors, such as conversations.

These behaviors are common in people with ASD, but not all people with ASD will engage in all of these behaviors. For example, a person might not avoid eye contact but be very concerned about being touched or the lights on the police car. Inconsistency in ASD symptom presentation is one reason why diagnosing ASD is very difficult and requires a professional with extensive training. Therefore, it will not be possible for an officer or other first responder to be confident that an unknown person they encounter during the line of duty who engages in some of these behaviors has ASD. Instead, when 2 or more of these symptoms are observed, the officer should consider the possibility that an individual has ASD and then consider using one or more the strategies discussed in these modules.

In Modules 6 and 7, we will provide tips for interacting with individuals with ASD. In general, we recommend that officers who encounter someone who may have ASD should:

  • Understand that the individual may not be able to control the unusual behaviors that we have described in Modules 3, 4, and 5.
  • Not interpret these behaviors as disrespectful or mocking.
  • When possible to do so safely, remain a few feet away from the individual.
  • Refrain from touching the individual, if possible.
  • Not try to carry on a normal conversation, particularly if the first attempts to do so are not successful.
  • Watch for signs of agitation and adjust interaction style to see if another approach might be more successful.
  • Use a calm and quiet voice when talking to the individual.
  • Keep instructions and other comments short and simple.

Module 4 | Module 6