Child Research:

Social Referencing

Affective impairments are some of the earliest signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These impairments disrupt the frequency and manner in which children with ASD initiate and respond to affective cues (e.g., facial cues, vocal displays of emotions, gestures). Specifically, children with ASD have difficulties with social referencing.

Two link behavior chain:


Social referencing is responding to other people’s facial cues. Imagine you walk into a room, see something ambiguous in the corner, you see someone in the room and he has a terrified look on his face. What do you do? I know what I wouldn’t do – approach the ambiguous object! Seeing the person’s facial cues helps provide information about the environment, and in this case, provides information to stay away from the ambiguous object. Analogously, positive facial cues such as smiling or nodding tell us that ambiguous objects are safe and, possibly, rewarding too.

Social Referencing:


From a behavioral standpoint, social referencing represents a two link behavior chain, where the first link consists of looking towards the adult’s face upon encountering an ambiguous stimulus, and the second link consists of approaching the stimulus when presented with positive facial cues and avoiding the stimulus when presented with negative facial cues. Children with ASD show difficulties in looking at the adult upon encountering an ambiguous stimulus, as well as in using the adult’s facial cues to guide their behavior.

Despite the importance of these skills and their affective aspect, they have only recently been addressed in the behavior analytic literature (e.g., Pelaez, Vurues-Ortega, & Gerwitz, 2012). Recent research conducted in our laboratory focused on teaching social referencing behavior in children with ASD. In the first line of research, children with ASD were taught to respond with context appropriate facial cues (i.e., smile) to experimenter initiated joint attention bits. The procedure consisted of forward chaining, where participants were taught to look at the experimenter when encountering an ambiguous stimulus and, once this step was mastered, they were taught to approach the stimulus when presented with positive facial cues and avoid the stimulus when presented the negative facial cues. Training was conducted across three different contexts with two participants. The study is currently being replicated with a third participant. This research expanded the existing literature in that it demonstrated that learning to engage in social referencing behavior can be accomplished using solely positive reinforcement, offering an ethical and socially acceptable treatment package for practitioners.