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Trends Cogn Sci. 2012 Apr;16(4):231-9. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2012.02.007. Epub 2012 Mar 17.

The social motivation theory of autism.

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  • 1Center for Autism Research, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, 3535 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.


The idea that social motivation deficits play a central role in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) has recently gained increased interest. This constitutes a shift in autism research, which has traditionally focused more intensely on cognitive impairments, such as theory-of-mind deficits or executive dysfunction, and has granted comparatively less attention to motivational factors. This review delineates the concept of social motivation and capitalizes on recent findings in several research areas to provide an integrated account of social motivation at the behavioral, biological and evolutionary levels. We conclude that ASD can be construed as an extreme case of diminished social motivation and, as such, provides a powerful model to understand humans' intrinsic drive to seek acceptance and avoid rejection.

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