New Research Suggests Social Issues are Down to Neurotypicals more than Autistics

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Picture by Joan M. Mas

Autism is seen, in popular representations, largely as a social and communication disorder. Formerly framed as stemming from an autistic lack of a “social instinct”, the current dominant idea is that something is deficient or missing in autistic social cognition. Often referred to as a cognitive deficit in “empathy” or “theory of mind”, much research on autistic social issues has focused on trying to clarify and detect this inside autistic brains and minds. The search for an elusive broken “theory of mind module” or “empathy mechanism” in the brain, and its ensuing cognitive manifestations, however, has led to conflicting results – with some scientists even concluding that autistic people feel too much empathy rather than too little.

Another view is that this is not simply an individual neuro-cognitive issue, but rather a wider social problem. Against the idea that autistic people have too much or too little anything, autistic neurodiversity movement advocates have long argued that the empathy problem is actually a two-way issue between neurotypicals and autistics, which only emerges when the line is crossed. Dubbed the “double empathy problem” by autistic scholar Damian Milton, this framing emphasises how communication and social encounters are always things that happen between people – meaning that any breakdown in communication is always relational and down to both sides, not just an innate issue with one or the other.

Not much empirical research has been carried out in this regard (most funding is directed to and by pathology paradigm proponents, who have no interest in pursuing a neurodiversity paradigm reframing of autism). However, a new collection of studies, published in Nature has given clear weight to the notion that autistic problems in socialising stem as much from the neurotypical side as the autistic side.

The three studies, each of which drew on different samples and used a variety of methodologies, initially all found that

‘observers’ first impressions of individuals with ASD engaging in real-world social behavior were found to be robustly less favorable than those of matched TD [i.e. neurotypical] controls […] these impressions were associated with reduced intentions to socially engage by observers’

In other words, they found that an important contributor to social and communication problems stemmed not from the autistic individuals, but rather from the neurotypical reactions, based on (by definition) exclusionary social attitudes and first impressions, which led to a decreased drive to interact with autistic individuals. That is to say, neurotypicals tend to decide, within moments of meeting autistic people, that autistic people are less worth socialising with than neurotypicals.

Building on this, one of the studies further compared evaluations between written communication and speaking in person. What it found was that autistic people were not rated negatively by neurotypicals when only their writing was assessed. Rather, it was how autistic people look, rather than the substance of what was said, that was the key factor in determining the neurotypical drive to exclude autistic individuals. This was further confirmed, note the researchers, when

‘a static image was sufficient for generating negative first impressions of those with ASD […] In contrast, first impressions of TD controls improved with the addition of a visual information’

In other words, an accompanying photo of an autistic individual had a negative affect on neurotypical perception of the value of the writer, whilst an accompanying photo of a neurotypical tended to have a positive affect.

Given this, it is no surprise that autistic people experience problems when it comes to social interaction. As the authors further clarify, their findings suggest that the issues autistic people face are in fact relational:

The reluctance of TD individuals to engage in social interactions with their ASD peers further limits the opportunities for individuals with ASD to practice their already fragile social skills. This can have a significant negative impact on the ability of socially aware and socially interested individuals with ASD to improve their social communication abilities and work toward more successful social integration

The practical implications of this, conclude the researchers, is that

If our goal is to improve social interactions for individuals with ASD, it may therefore be equally important to educate others to be more aware and accepting of social presentation differences, rather than trying to change the many interwoven factors of self-presentation that mark the expressions of individuals with ASD as atypical.

This fits precisely with the notion that the empathy problem goes both ways rather than from within autistic people, not to mention that this happens in the context of pervasive ableist norms and attitudes that seek to alter rather than accommodate autistic being. Given this, as many autistic individuals will surely testify, this important new research may, then, be vital in helping to show policy makers and the wider public that the key problem with regards to autism is not autism itself. Rather, as autistic self-advocates have long argued, it is neurotypical society and the ableism so deeply embedded throughout.

 

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31 thoughts on “New Research Suggests Social Issues are Down to Neurotypicals more than Autistics

  1. Many thanks for this article and for the other excellent posts on your blog. Autists know that communication is relational – always between specific individuals, and that it takes time and multiple interactions to develop a shared understanding. My experience is that in today’s society the neurotypical understanding of the concept of “social” diverges significantly from the naive autistic understanding of “social” https://autcollab.org/2017/09/30/social/.

    Autists can be very productive and trustworthy collaborators, but not in a myopic hyper-competitive society that values social status more than all other forms of understanding about the world we live in. I invite you to join us at https://autcollab.org/about/.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Yep! The study by Brett Heasman and Alex Gillespie 2017,displays this phenomenon. I gathered that the difficulty in relationships between autistics and non-autistics is most likely down to the emphasis that TDs place on conforming to an *image* … preoccupied by appearances over substance.
    We see this echoed all over the planet… people selected on basis of *image* so I ask which demographic is averse to change/difference rigidly maintaining idealisation of stereotypical uniformity/inflexibility in behaviour, thought and appearance?

    Liked by 3 people

    • It is very strange but the reply posted above under Jorn Bettin was actually posted by Privatepersonblog. I cannot explain how this has occurred but I have had many inexplicable problems with my online identity. The post below has no actual connection with Privatepersonblog.

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  3. What about body language? Could it also be that neurotypicals read body language as closed off and don’t want to impose? As a sensitive individual I do tend to make friends who are on the spectrum sometimes but it takes a lot longer and it’s a dance of giving distance required by them but gaining familiarity.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Be careful in posing personal experience in a way that generally paints attributes in opposition with one another. There are ASD people who are also ‘sensitive’, and for whom body language is important, as is familiarity.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I’m a sensitive autistic who for years now has pretty open body language, and a lot of non-autistics are curmudgeony — do I get a badge if I make them smile or befriend them? That is super dehumanizing and please don’t give yourself so much credit. Also it isn’t so easy to tell who is and isn’t on the spectrum as one might think, especially with strangers. People make false assumptions in both directions. Body language is very complex and also means different things in different cultures — also it is complicated among non-autistics who have anxiety, are having a bad day, have physical disabilities, or simply don’t like you… And there are autistics like me, who grew up exceedingly obviously autistic, not talking, not able to fake it, misdiagnosed schizophrenic at 16, and then as an adult because I really have an interest in socializing when I do go out in certain settings and like to soothe people when I can, might come across a little odd but with very open and soothing and cheerful body language that draws people in! But that is by my choice, when I can manage it, and I certainly am not superior for it.

      People mesh with who they mesh — but you really are not the “autistic whisperer.” People should be able to be themselves as long as they aren’t hurting anyone. “Closed off” body language, as you describe doesn’t mean people can’t be approached still, and seen if the person wants to interact, needs anything, wants anything, would like to be part of a group or an individual friendship, same as any other human. I experienced it both as the “closed off” one and approaching the one whom others saw as closed off and you are talking about as if they are somehow “wrong” for being that way. Making such a big deal out of it and acting like your way is the superior way is part of what this article is indicating is *the issue*. Being kind and not making assumptions really is not a burden. So much progress could be made for everyone in every direction and an easier time and more understanding between everyone if a little less push for social norms and more reaching out with gentleness and less pats on the back for oneself for “spending time with the autistic.”

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m somewhat surprised that a still image can have this effect. Where as a video (or audio video) can obviously convey non verbal.
    Somewhat implying “looking autistic” is a thing.
    It would be interesting to know if autistic people can distinguish people in a similar way.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Thanks for the interesting article! It may feel that neurotypicals favour appearances over substance, but I don’t think that’s exactly right : social conventions, norms and behaviours have values attached to them. Here’s a very simple example. Saying “hello, how are you?” to someone you see the first time during the day (the very first second you see him/her!) is considered for neurotypicals as a form of respect, of acknowledgement. They’re not upset by the fact that someone doesn’t say those words, they’re upset because they wonder why the other does not acknowledge their presence (did he see me and reject me? why? did I do something wrong? is he angry?). And it’s the same for anyone, we all attach values to a certain way of acting (or interacting), and can get upset or hurt if we don’t understand why the other did what he did. Part of the solution is simple : knowing each other better, and it does go both ways. We need to see each other as equal human beings in this, and try to understand what’s upsetting for the other when interacting, as well as why that other person might not have acted the way that we thought he should have, with an open mind (there is usually a valid reason, on both sides). That’s our collective challenge. No easy task! 🙂 (www.ablogonautism.wordpress.com)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on includedbygrace and commented:
    Important to think about this in church. How do we welcome people who are socially different to us and do we cause some of their social difficulties. I’m glad to say I have seen and have wonderful friendships with autistic people because it IS a two way relationship of supporting each other to understand and relate together.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve noticed long ago that many NTs are rigidly intolerant of anything that strays even slightly from what they consider “normal”. Handshakes, eye contact, greetings, small talk about sports, etc. Not just that you do those things, but that you do them exactly “correctly”! And it is very subjective. I could write a book just on the subject of shaking hands.

    Job interviews are like a minefield.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. It is ironic that an article proposing that autism is inter-personal treats the neurological differences as defining autism’s atypicality rather than considering the differences as resulting from early atypical inter-personal experiences. Neurology is developmentally dynamic. Preventive and early treatment work should look at familial interpersonal experience as a possible contributor to later neurological and behavioral differences.

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    • I agree. What does a parent suppressing stims in a young autistic child do to his/her cognitive development? How much of the “autistic” behaviour is generated by the interaction of the child with society, as opposed to behaviour generated purely from within the child?

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Reblogged this on Native of Nowhere and commented:
    I have suspected that normies are equally to blame for poor social interactions with spectrum people. They judge from a afar first, and then (very antisocially) they decide to be less open and conversational with me. They place a “social worth” on me and if it is low, they are not motivated to communicate with me EVEN WHEN I AM TRYING HARD TO REACH OUT TP THEM. This article suggests this might be as true as it feels!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. And the bullying that goes on trying to get children to comply with a narrow world vision of NT communication in the crucial years of their development. Is it any wonder that autistic children struggle and are filled with so much anxiety that they can’t always cope.

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  11. Amendment! I have misread the order of where the names appear in relation to the Replies…. I checked my wordpress site and found that the comment “Yep! The study by……. etc was not attributed to Jorn Bettin…. just setting things straight…. I’m in a difficult place at the moment hence susceptibility to confusion caused by recent online identity problems.

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