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February 5, 2021

First impressions of autistic adults

Last updated on February 5, 2021

A review of the following research paper:

Do first impressions of autistic adults differ
between autistic and nonautistic observers?

In 2019, research by Kilee DeBrabander et al. sought support for a hypothesis that autistic adults would form a more favorable first impression of an autistic subject than neurotypical adults would.[1]Do First Impressions of Autistic Adults Differ Between Autistic and Nonautistic Observers? (DeBrabander et al., 2019)

Additionally, the researchers believed that autistic adults would be less affected by diagnostic disclosure than would neurotypical adults because of their familiarity with autistic traits.


Methods

The researchers solicited participation from 64 adult observers, comprised of 32 autistic and 32 neurotypical adults. Observers were asked to view 40 one-minute recorded videos of subjects who described why they should be selected for a television show. Video recorded subjects consisted of 20 autistic and 20 neurotypical adults with normal intelligence. Both observers and video-recorded subjects were heavily weighted towards Caucasian males.[2]Do First Impressions of Autistic Adults Differ Between Autistic and Nonautistic Observers? (DeBrabander et al., 2019)

After viewing subject introductions, observers were provided transcripts of introductions, and were asked to rate each person on six traits:

  • Awkwardness
  • Attractiveness
  • Assertiveness
  • Likeability
  • Trustworthiness
  • Intelligence

Additionally, observers indicated their interest in interacting socially with each video-recorded subject.


Findings

The research showed the following results:[3]Do First Impressions of Autistic Adults Differ Between Autistic and Nonautistic Observers? (DeBrabander et al., 2019)

  • Both autistic and neurotypical observers rated neurotypical introductions higher than autistic introductions. However, autistic observers were less critical in their ratings of autistic subjects than were their neurotypical counterparts.
  • Disclosure of subject diagnostic status had no significant effect on ratings by autistic observers.
  • However, neurotypical observers rated autistic subjects significantly lower when their diagnosis was not disclosed.
  • Autistic observers did not discriminate in expressing interest in interacting with subjects. In contrast, neurotypical observers had no interest in interacting with autistic subjects even when their diagnosis was disclosed.

Conclusions

The following conclusions can be drawn from the study:

(1) Increased anxiety experienced by autistic subjects in recording videos

Autistic observers may have rated autistic adults lower on videos because they observed indications of significantly higher anxiety, as compared to observations of neurotypical subjects. This explanation is anecdotal, based upon personal experiences in which I have found it literally impossible to record a quality video introduction for an employment interview. As a result of anxiety and frustration from attempting to record a video, I took myself out of consideration for a high-paying job.

Additionally, another member of the Embrace ASD Community on Facebook shared a similar experience in trying to record a video for an employment interview. One weakness in this study is that the researchers made an assumption that autistic and neurotypical observers were similar in evaluations without asking observers to explain their ratings. There was no mention of anxiety being considered a possible factor affecting the behavior of autistic subjects.

(2) Recognition of autistic traits among autistic video subjects

As the researchers speculated, the autistic observers may have recognized autistic traits in viewing videos of autistic subjects. Therefore their ratings were not influenced by the disclose of the subject’s autism.

(3) Social acceptability concerns among neurotypicals in rating autistic subjects

The researchers speculated that disclosure of the diagnostic status of autistic subjects influenced neurotypical observers who made allowances due to the subjects’ disability. However, this does not explain why neurotypical observers expressed no interest in interacting with any autistic subject. Another possible explanation is that in a heightened age of “diversity awareness” neurotypical observers believed it was appropriate for them to assign higher ratings on the subjects who were presented as autistic.

(4) Overt discrimination by neurotypicals against autistic adults

Despite societal emphasis on increasing diversity and inclusivity, we still see all manner of discrimination against minorities based upon race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and or course neurological status. Is it surprising that neurotypical observers did not want to interact with autistic adult subjects? By contrast, autistic observers who were accustomed to dealing with the stigma of autism did not discriminate against any subjects—autistic or neurotypical.


Utility of this research to autistic adults

The implications of the findings are clear for any autistic adult seeking to build a career. With unemployment rates being significant[4]Adult outcome for children with autism (Howlin et al., 2004)[5]Questioning universal applicability of transformational leadership: Examining employees with autism spectrum disorder (Parr, Huntera & Scott Ligon, 2013) (45% according to a 2018 thesis study,[6]The Impact of Indoor Environment Quality on People on the Autism Spectrum (Noble, 2018) and—although less credibly[7]Are 85% of autistic college grads unemployed? | Skeptics Stack Exchange—as high as 77% according to the National Autistic Society)[8]Government must tackle the autism employment gap (2016) | National Autistic Society even for educated autistics (one study shows that 31.3% of autistic people are overeducated),[9]Education and employment status of adults with autism spectrum disorders in Germany – a cross-sectional-survey (Frank et al., 2018) it is important to develop skills to mask your autistic traits to the extent possible during the recruitment process and after you have been hired. After proving yourself on the job, you may be able to disclose your diagnosis and seek reasonable accommodations. If you are not able to mask, such as the case when I was trying to record an introductory video, your choices are to disclose your autism or withdraw from consideration. In my case, I already had a job and did not want to deal with added frustration. Employers are becoming more open to hiring autistic people, and they may even recruit based upon your unique talents (which is also encouraged by the University of Oxford).[10]Autistic Spectrum Disorder & Asperger’s Syndrome | University of Oxford However, that is the exception rather than the rule.

Before I landed my current job, I interviewed for a higher-paying job that I was well qualified for. I bought a new suit and prepared for the interview. When I arrived for the interview, I was introduced to about 4–5 technical experts for a series of interviews that lasted about three hours in total. By the time I got to the last interview, I was exhausted, perspiring profusely, and was asking for water. I did not get the job and heard from someone I knew that the hiring manager noticed my anxiety and did not want to hire me. The fact that I might have been the best candidate for the job did not matter to her.

The findings also have implications to everyday life, in developing relationships with others, and in guarding against people seeking to take advantage of you. Even though I was not diagnosed until age 61, I recognize that nearly all the friendships I have developed during my life were with neurodivergent people. I did not know it at the time, but those were the people I had the most in common with. Like people in the Embrace ASD Community.


Lastly, it is unfortunate that the researchers introduced so much sampling bias, including mostly Caucasian male participants. I suspect that the findings will apply to females and racially different people with autism to an even greater extent. However, it is difficult to extrapolate the findings to groups that were under-represented in this study without making assumptions.

I encourage you to read the article for yourself, and discuss additional thoughts that come to mind.

This article
was written by:
fred-day
Fred was diagnosed autistic in 2020 at age 61, and has a Ph.D. in Human Sciences with a specialization in Organization Leadership.

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