Dynamic Duo Series: Social Learning
Updated: Mar 23, 2019
Part 3 of the series exploring the Dynamic Duo and related issues more in depth
When I was growing up, the world was a very confusing place.
The most confusing part was the people in it. I didn't know how to interact with them. I didn't know what to expect from them, and moreso didn't know what they expected from me.
Case in point: when I was 12, my violin teacher complimented me during a lesson on a piece I was practicing, telling me it was played well. My reply? "Yes, it was", rather than "Thank you".
I knew that the social world operated by "unwritten social rules" that most people just learned on their own, and that autism meant that I had difficulty learning them.
I eventually started to learn them, but I had to be directly taught them. And for many years I wondered why autism meant that I had trouble learning them on my own. How did others learn them? Why couldn't I?
Discovering the answers were some of the biggest "ah-ha" moments I've ever had in my autism research. One of them is that vitamin D is a surprising powerful thing when it comes to helping the symptoms of autism. It does far more than just help your mood.
How do you know how to behave in a given social situation? Say someone walks up to you in a public space, is looking you in the eye, greets you, and sticks out their hand. What are they expecting? Well, this person is greeting you, and wants you to greet them back, and shake their hand.
How did you know this? You recognized the type of situation and what they expected from you. This is something you do unconsciously. You didn't have to mentally tell yourself "someone is greeting me - I'm supposed to shake their hand and greet them back". There were two parts to this, both of which autistics have trouble with: 1) recognizing the type of situation, and 2) knowing what you should do in that situation,
First, recognizing the type of situation. You've created the concept in your mind of the type of situation by categorizing it. Autistics have trouble doing this. As I've talked about before, there's a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, and one of its jobs is to take information from other parts of the brain, filter it, and pass what's needed to the decision-making part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.
In autism, the filter isn't working the way it should. It's passing too many details to the prefrontal cortex. And too much dopamine in the brain is over-rewarding attention to those details.
Focusing on the details means that we have trouble categorizing things and recognizing patterns. We have trouble collecting a group of behaviors into a social situation.
Fortunately, there is some help for this. Zinc can help bring the levels of dopamine back to normal. I discuss how this works more in depth in my article on Fixation. Normal levels of dopamine can help stem the overload of details so that the brain can form the concepts.
Second, there's knowing what to do in a given social situation. In my experience, this is the harder of the two. This is where vitamin D comes in.
As I said, vitamin D does far more than just help with mood. It also helps the brain make two things: oxytocin and vasopressin. You may have heard of oxytocin before. It's the bonding hormone, and it helps us connect with people. Both oxytocin and vasopressin are social learning chemicals, helping us learn what to do in social situations. They also help the different parts of the brain talk to each other.
Vitamin D levels tend to be low in autism. Low vitamin D means that the brain can't make as much oxytocin and vasopressin, which makes it more challenging to learn those unwritten social rules. Supplementing vitamin D helps the brain make these chemicals the way it should, so that learning the rules can start to take place.
I've seen vitamin D make a huge difference. I started taking it last year to help with mood, before I knew it could help with social learning. Then I learned about this connection between the two, and in hindsight I realized I had become more socially capable.
An example: at work, a group of coworkers and I were being given a new, temporary assignment for a few months. Most of us were apprehensive about it. One of my coworkers, someone that reported to me, was especially worried and didn't know how she was going to handle it. I just knew how to comfort and reassure her. It wasn't something I had ever be able to do before, but in that moment I knew how. And it was thanks to the vitamin D I was taking.
I'm not the only one I've seen benefit from vitamin D. After I found out about the social learning benefit of vitamin D, I shared it with my sister, who has a 9-year-old autistic son. She said she had been giving him vitamin D for the previous week, and she noticed that he had learned something on his own. She says he has become more socially engaged as well, without her doing anything but adding vitamin D.
The challenges of not knowing how to socialize tend to make us anxious, which I've discussed in greater detail in a previous post. As an additional benefit, vitamin D also helps make serotonin, which helps regulate mood. So we're less anxious about the whole thing.
So if I had to pick something as the most useful thing I had to say in this entire blog, it's about vitamin D. It can help with autism, finally learning the unwritten social rules, and so much more.
Note: If you're interested in giving yourself or your child vitamin D, please talk to your doctor about the proper dosage.
Patrick, R. P., & Ames, B. N. (2014, June). Vitamin D hormone regulates serotonin synthesis. Part 1: Relevance for autism. Retrieved February 3, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24558199/
Zeliadt, N. (2014, November 19). Diverse dopamine defects found in people with autism. Retrieved February 3, 2019, from https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/diverse-dopamine-defects-found-in-people-with-autism/