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.