Can autistic people make great social partners
For many years, researchers have treated the individual traits and characteristics of autistic people as an enduring essence of their autism– in isolation of the social context and without even asking autistic people what their social life is actually like.
However, perspective matters.
Who is to say it’s autistic people who are the “awkward” ones?
Misconceptions about Autistic people and their social skills
A number of myths about autistic people abound.
For one, it’s a great myth that autistic people lack empathy.
This is how they were depicted for so many years in the clinical literature and in the media– as emotionless, socially clueless robots. However, the more you get to know an autistic person, the more you realize just how caring they can be, even though they may have some difficulties reading social cues. As Steve Silberman points out, empathy is a two-way street.
Another common misconception is that autistic people aren’t social.
I really like some recent approaches that add greater complexity to this issue, showing that when you take a contextual strengths-based approach you can see that people on the autism spectrum are much more social than researchers ever realized. The lens upon which we look at a person matters. As Megan Clark and Dawn Adams put it, “When autism is viewed through a deficit lens the strengths, positive attributes and interests of individuals on the spectrum can be overshadowed.”
What does research reveal?
In one recent study, Clark and Adams asked 83 children on the autism spectrum (aged 8 to 15 years) various questions about themselves.
When asked “What do you like most about yourself?”
the most common themes were “I am a good friend or person to be around” and “I am good at particular things.”
When asked “What do you enjoy the most?”, one of the most endorsed themes was social interaction.
In other words, when asked to talk about their own lives, social interactions organically emerged as a prominent positive theme among autistic adults.
Clark and Adams concluded that “self-report studies provide individuals on the autism spectrum with a much-needed opportunity to express and share their attributes, strengths, and interests with others, adding their voice to the literature.”
I consider this a step forward– actually asking them about their lives, not just scientists telling autistic people what they are like.
While it is true that children on the autism spectrum in general education classrooms are often on the periphery of their classroom social engagement, researchers suggest it’s due in large part due to the lack of supports that would allow autistic people to engage with their peers on the school playground. Bias may be a significant factor in allowing us to see the real social potential of autistic people.
In one study, Noah Sasson and colleagues found that even within a couple of seconds typically developing people make quick judgments about people on the autism spectrum. These patterns are robust, happen quickly, and persist across child and adult age groups. Unfortunately, these judgments are not favorable or kind.
But here’s the kicker: the researchers found that the biases against autistic people disappeared when the impressions were based on conversational content lacking audio-visual cues.
As the researchers note, “style, not substance drives negative impressions of people on the ASD.” They advocate for a broader perspective that considers both the impairments and biases of potential social partners.
Investigation about social interaction of autistic adults
Enter a more recent study. Kerianne Morrison and colleagues looked at the real-time social interactions of 67 autistic adults and 56 typically developing adults.