Social Connectedness and Autism

According to a popular parlor game (Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon), people in the planet, regardless of their profession or geographical location, are separated from each other by an average of six inter-related acquaintances. This parlor game illustrates how you are connected, via a few people, to both the Pope and the President of the United States. It is comforting that in this world, so big and expansive, we all belong to a closely knit society. In the United States this concept dates back to the work of the social psychologist Stanley Milgram who sometime in the 1960’s conducted a social experiment sending packages to 160 random people in Omaha, Nebraska. The instructions on the package asked the recipient to remit the same to a personal acquaintance so that it would eventually end in the hands of a stockbroker in another part of the country. The results of the experiment showed that the recipient could be reached by linking on average 5 acquaintances. Microsoft established support to the 6 degrees of freedom by using an analysis that spanned the whole world (i.e., Microsoft Instant Messenger Traffic). In effect by studying billions of electronic messages they were able to show that any two strangers are interconnected by an average of 6.6 intermediary individuals. More recently the average cumulus of knowledge of these social nets have been solidifying through avenues such as Facebook and Twitter.

According to Wikipedia, Social Connectedness is the measure of how people come together and interact. The quality of a person’s social interactions does not depend on his or hers total number of friends but rather on your subjective appraisal of the quality of their interactions with them. Quality of social connectedness is dependent on:

  • Duration of relationship
  • Frequency of interaction with the other person
  • Knowledge of the other person’s goals
  • Physical intimacy or closeness with the other person
  • Self-disclosure to the other person
  • Social network familiarity—how familiar is the other person with the rest of your social circle

Social connectedness has important implications for health. Increased levels of connectedness is associated with lower blood pressure, better immune response, lower levels of stress hormones, and increased longevity. By way of contrast, social isolation is a risk factor for many chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes, antisocial behaviors, cancer, and even for increasing your chances of premature death.

A study by the Mental Health and Addiction Services of Ohio used a survey to report on the social connectednes of randomly sampled families having children with serious emotional disturbances (n=6,723) including a subgroup of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (n= 820).  In this study, the caregivers of children with ASD reported significantly less social connectedness.  Although there is a smorgasbord of social skills training (e.g., social stories, comic strips interventions, social scripts, social skills groups) for ASD individuals and their families there is little in terms of establishing programs aimed at building the families’ network of social support.  The health consequences of diminished or poor social connectedness are very serious. Given the limited resources available to support families with ASD, programs that can make a difference in patients lives, such as social support programs should be prioritized.  For those interested in the benefits of social support and on how to grow your support network, the American Psychological Association has an informative publication on the subject.

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