The behavioral approach to the social difficulties in autism has also been present in psychology since the 1960s. The behavioral tradition emphasizes description of actual behavioral deficits and excesses, rather than underlying constructs about the nature of development (Lovaas et al., 1965). Behavioral interventions use the powerful tools of operant learning to treat symptoms of autistic spectrum disorders. This approach, which treated each social symptom as a separate entity, was radically different from the social relations traditions described above, which considered all social behavior as emanating from one main construct. As we review below, interventions based on behavioral approaches have consistently demonstrated short-term success at teaching individual social behaviors and establishing social motivators.
The third developmental theory to address the social deficits in autism, “withdrawal,” goes back to the beginnings of interest in autism. This theory, first articulated by Bergman and Escalona (1949), studied experimentally by Hutt and Hutt (1964), and developed further by ethologists (Tinbergen and Tinbergen, 1972), postulates that children with autism find social interaction with others aversive. This is generally attributed to overly narrow thresholds or overly sensitive central nervous systems that cannot tolerate the arousing qualities of emotional engagement or sensory stimulation. Children’s response to these aversive exchanges is to withdraw from them, seeking to reduce overarousal through repetitive activities with their bodies and objects. DesLauriers and Carlson (1969) suggested that there was also an “underaroused” subgroup in autism, for whom typical levels of social engagement were not arousing enough to be registered. The result of the ongoing and increasing withdrawal is a lack of opportunity to learn appropriate behavior and skills from other people. This theory continues today, expressed quite strongly in sensory integration approaches to understanding and treating autism (Ayres and Tickle, 1980). It has also been suggested by researchers and clinicians who focus on social engagement (Greenspan et al., 1997; Dawson and Lewy, 1989).
There is little empirical research to support an overarousal theory of autism. While the findings are not uniform (James and Barry, 1980), a variety of studies have failed to find evidence of overarousal to sensory stimuli (Bernal and Miller, 1971; Miller et al., 2000). In fact, the more typical finding is under-arousal, in comparison with other groups. Corona et al. (1998) examined overarousal in a social paradigm. Using psychophysiological measures of arousal in the face of strong adult affective displays in a naturalistic paradigm, Corona and colleagues found no evi-