Here’s something I noticed about my son even before we suspected he may have ASD: other children gravitated to him. This was especially apparent on the playground, where you often have a gaggle of kids who do not know one another. We would let him loose, and he would quickly accumulate an entourage.
As usual, I have a hypothesis.
One characteristics of those with ASD is that they don’t imitate others as frequently as do those without the condition. A recent study in the journal Biology suggests that that this is a matter of “efficiency” — children with autism will copy the essence of an action, but leave out anything “silly”:
After seeing an actor demonstrate actions on a novel object, typically developing (TD) children faithfully copy both necessary and visibly unnecessary actions. This ‘overimitation’ is commonly described in terms of learning about the object, but may also reflect a social process such as the child’s motivation to affiliate with the demonstrator or to conform to perceived norms …. [in this study] we report a significant reduction in overimitation in children with autism spectrum conditions (ASC). This is coherent with reports that these children have profound difficulties with social engagement and do not spontaneously imitate action style.
On a playground everything is an “unnecessary action”, and my son shows no inclination to imitate others. His peers, however, feel a social need to copy, and therefore cast around for a trailblazer; when it becomes apparent that my son is just such a nonconformist, they naturally fall into his orbit.
I’ve observed this phenomenon less and less as he has gotten older. Now that he is notably “different”, children his age are less likely to see him as a role model. Plus, his behavior on the playground is entirely physical — swinging on the monkey bars and going down the slide — while most other children have moved on to more social activities, such as chatting or playing tag.
But younger children continue to find him fascinating. They seem enthralled by his drive, his disregard for what others are doing, and his immunity to peer pressure. He behaves like a natural born leader, and some can’t help but follow.