The participants engaged in one of three conversational groups: autism-autism, typically developing-typically developing, and autism-typically developing. After the conversation was over, the participants recorded their impressions of their partner and the quality of the interaction. This allowed the researchers to separate impression information from ratings of the actual quality of the conversation.
Watch out this interesting video to know why autism is sexier than you think:
Autistic adults were perceived to be more awkward, less attractive, and less warm compared to typically developing social partners.
However, autistic adults were not rated as less intelligent, trustworthy, or likable. Also, despite the autistic adults being rated as more awkward and less attractive, perception of the quality of the conversation did not differ between the autistic adults and the typically developing social partners. This finding replicates the 2017 study that negative impressions of autistic people in a social situation are driven more by their presentation differences rather than the actual content of their conversation.
Also, compared to typically developing participants, the researchers found that autistic participants reported feeling closer to their social partners.
There are multiple possible explanations but one may be that autistic people value social interactions more, especially when given the chance to socialize. Perhaps people on the autism spectrum are more inclined to shun small talk and superficial banter and appreciate more close relationships than typically developing people. At least in the mating domain, there is evidence that people with autistic-like traits tend to be less interested in short-term mating and report a stronger commitment to long-term romantic relationships.
Not only can autistic people make great social partners, but they can also make great romantic partners!
Finally, Kerianne Morrison and colleagues found a trend for autistic adults to prefer interacting with other autistic adults, and autistic people reported disclosing more about themselves when interacting with another autistic person compared to when interacting with a typically developing social partner. Zooming in on the content of the conversations, autistic individuals were more likely to geek out over their special interest areas when chatting with others on the autism spectrum.
The researchers conclude: “These results suggest that social affiliation may increase for autistic adults when partnered with other autistic people, and support reframing social interaction difficulties in autism as a relational rather than individual impairment.”
I really like the idea of reframing social awkwardness in autism. As I suggested elsewhere, perhaps we should think about the social style of autistic people as a form of social creativity. An emerging class of “drama-based group interventions” are applying drama-based techniques in a group setting to increase joint engagement and play among autistic children.
For instance, Matthew Lerner and his colleagues have used improvisation techniques to teach autistic children how to respond to unexpected social scenarios. The activities are designed to be fun and to provide shared joy and connection among the participants. Many of the autistic children who participate are treated as “awkward” and “weird” by others at schools. However, when they engage in improv with each other they are viewed as the funny, quirky, awesome human beings that they really truly are.
All of these findings suggest that the social interaction difficulties seen among autistic people may be highly contextual and dependent on the right fit between the person and the environment.
But even more broadly, these new methods and approaches within psychology are transforming how autistic people think of themselves in the world and what they are ultimately able to become. It highlights the way their unique brain wiring can be a strength, instead of immediately trying to “fix” them.
By meeting autistic people where they are, we see that they are capable of far more than researchers, and the general public had long believed to be the case.