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Autism and Social Interaction: A Discursive Psychological Study

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posted on 26.07.2021, 23:22 by Gates Henderson

In psychological research, autistic people are generally characterised as possessing disordered social cognition and embodiment in comparison to non-autistic people.

Specifically, a deficit in Theory of Mind (the capacity to think about other people’s mental states in order to understand and predict their behaviour) and altered tactile sensation have been proposed as some significant psychological differences present in autism. Autistic people are characterised as experiencing social interactional difficulties that impact social-emotional reciprocity. Examples of such impact include struggling to approach others to interact or to make personal or relevant contributions to an interaction.

While there is a substantial literature on the cognitive properties of autistic individuals compared to non-autistic individuals and how these impact social psychological phenomena, there is considerably less research that analyses autistic people in their own right as social agents in naturally-occurring, everyday settings. As well, there is a challenge to the ideology behind deficit-oriented frameworks of autism in the form of the neurodiversity movement. This thesis draws on ethnomethodology, discursive psychology, and conversation analysis to contribute to both the naturalistic study of autistic people in social interaction and the development of positive, competence-oriented, and ecological approaches to autism. This will be achieved by analysing the social action, as produced in talk and with the body, of autistic children in interaction with their family members in their homes.

Ten hours of video recordings were collected in the homes of four volunteer families with at least one autistic child member. Recordings were made by the families themselves of the mundane domestic activities they engaged in, including episodes of cooking and mealtimes, members playing together, preparing for school, and discussing the day’s activities. After detailed transcription, instances of the children providing accounts for their own behaviour and embraces (or resistance to them) were collected for and became the focus of detailed analysis. An extended sequence constituting a common parenting activity (directing a child to do something) was also selected. This research takes the domains of Theory of Mind and tactile sensation that are prominent within psychological research on autism and treats them as social interactional accomplishments.

The first empirical chapter examines how children accounted for their own behaviour.

It found that the children’s accounts were oriented toward the displayed expectancies and characterisations of the child and their conduct either in responding to first pair parts (e.g., resisting suggestions with an embedded presumption of the child’s knowledge), or in launching their own first action (e.g., requesting more food). These accounts constitute concern for how the children’s interactants could, or do, treat them in response to their behaviour, accomplishing Theory of Mind embedded in their everyday action.

With respect to tactile sensation, the second empirical chapter analyses embraces.

Embraces occurred within and between a variety of other activities. Analyses showed how both children and parents initiated embraces and many were accomplished as non-problematic by the children. Participants arranged their bodies such that the embrace was coordinated with the talk and ongoing action, and utilised both verbal and embodied resources to initiate and terminate. Children prioritised their ongoing actions, treating some embraces or embrace initiations as interruptive by avoiding, escaping or otherwise misaligning with them.

The third empirical chapter demonstrates how one family’s extended sequence of action directing their child to use the bathroom before bedtime was comprised of a variety of different relational activities. In the process of managing the larger project of the directive, parent and child negotiated complex elements of their relationship including issues of power and responsibility, shared knowledge and experiences, and expectations of group membership.

This thesis offers a critical perspective on the conceptualisation of autism in psychology. It grounds this alternative view of autism based on an empirical analysis of how the autistic children and their family members in the interactions analysed manage complex social psychological matters in the production of their social action. It expands upon discursive psychological research on the accomplishment of social cognition as action produced within talk-in-interaction. It also exemplifies a direction a neurodiversity-sensitive psychology of social action could take and identifies ways that this can be further developed.


Advisor 1

Weatherall, Ann

Advisor 2

McDowall, John

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Date of Award



Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

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Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology