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Autism affects how someone makes sense of the world around them. About 1–2% of people are autistic. You might have an autistic classmate or family member, or maybe you are autistic. Autistic people might communicate differently than people who are not autistic. This means that it can be difficult for other people to understand what autistic people are trying to say or what they mean. We tend to think that people who are not autistic might be more successful at understanding other people, but in fact, autistic people may be better understood by other autistic people. We will examine and explain some research that has explored how autistic and non-autistic people communicate with each other and explore how this research fits with a theory called the double empathy problem. Understanding what makes interaction comfortable and easy for different people can help us all understand each other better.
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NEUROSCIENCE
Published: 11 May 2021
doi: 10.3389/frym.2021.554875
DOUBLE EMPATHY: WHY AUTISTIC PEOPLE ARE
OFTEN MISUNDERSTOOD
Catherine J. Crompton 1*, Kilee DeBrabander 2, Brett Heasman 3, Damian Milton 4and
Noah J. Sasson 2
1Patrick Wild Centre, Division of Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
2School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, The University of Texas at Dallas, Dallas, TX, United States
3School of Psychology, York St John University, York, United Kingdom
4Tizard Centre, University of Kent, Canterbury, United Kingdom
YOUNG REVIEWERS:
AMELIA
AGE: 15
ANAND
AGE: 13
Autism aects how someone makes sense of the world around
them. About 1–2% of people are autistic. You might have an autistic
classmate or family member, or maybe you are autistic. Autistic
people might communicate dierently than people who are not
autistic. This means that it can be dicult for other people to
understand what autistic people are trying to say or what they mean.
We tend to think that people who are not autistic might be more
successful at understanding other people, but in fact, autistic people
may be better understood by other autistic people. We will examine
and explain some research that has explored how autistic and
non-autistic people communicate with each other and explore how
this research fits with a theory called the double empathy problem.
Understanding what makes interaction comfortable and easy for
dierent people can help us all understand each other better.
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Crompton et al. What Is Double Empathy?
WHAT IS THE DOUBLE EMPATHY PROBLEM?
Can you tell when somebody is bored or frustrated or upset with
you, even when they do not say so? People often communicate
information about themselves without even saying a word. The
expressions on their faces or the ways they are acting can be big
clues to what they might be feeling or thinking. Being autistic aects
AUTISTIC
Being autistic is
considered clinically to
be a medical condition,
but is also a source of
social identity. Being
autistic aects how
someone makes sense
of the world. Some
autistic people can find
it hard to communicate
with other people, and
might have diculty
making friends and
fitting in. Autistic
people might find
changes dicult and
might experience
sounds, smells, and
other senses dierently.
Some autistic people
might move in a certain
way (like twirling) or do
the same thing
repeatedly (like
opening and closing
doors). People are born
autistic and remain so
their whole lives. Some
autistic people need
only a little support,
while others need a lot
of help with learning
and everyday activities.
how people make sense of the world around them, and some autistic
people can find it hard to communicate. For a long time, research
has shown that autistic people can have trouble figuring out what
non-autistic people are thinking and feeling, and this can make it
dicult for them to make friends or to fit in. But recently, studies have
shown that the problem goes both ways: people who are not autistic
also have trouble figuring out what autistic people are thinking and
feeling! It is not just autistic people who struggle.
Atheory that helps to describe what happens when autistic and
THEORY
An explanation for how
things work and why
they happen. Scientists
develop theories based
on observations of the
world and then test
these theories using
research studies.
non-autistic people struggle to understand each other is called the
double empathy problem [1] (Figure 1). Empathy is defined as the
DOUBLE EMPATHY
PROBLEM
A theory that helps to
describe what happens
when autistic and
non-autistic people
struggle to understand
each other.
EMPATHY
The ability to
understand and share
the feelings of
another person.
ability to understand or be aware of the feelings, thoughts, and
experiences of others. According to the double empathy problem,
empathy is a two-way process that depends a lot on our ways of
doing things and our expectations from previous social experiences,
which can be very dierent for autistic and non-autistic people.
These dierences can lead to a breakdown in communication that
can be distressing for both autistic and non-autistic people. It
might sometimes be dicult for non-autistic parents to understand
what their autistic child is feeling, or autistic people might feel
frustrated when they cannot eectively communicate their thoughts
and feelings to others. In this way, communication barriers between
autistic and non-autistic people can make it more dicult for them to
connect, share experiences, and empathize with one another.
Let us look at the example of “reading between the lines.” This is
when you understand something that someone means, even when
they have not said it with words. For example, your friend might say
that his day has been okay, but sigh and seem a bit grumpy or sad.
Reading between the lines, you might guess that your friend’s day has
not been okay at all. Autistic people might struggle to read between
the lines of what non-autistic people are saying, because this way
of communicating does not come easily to autistic people. On the
other hand, non-autistic people might make incorrect assumptions
about autistic people because they are reading between the lines
too much.
Autistic people can find it exhausting and confusing to understand
non-autistic ways of communicating. Likewise, non-autistic people
might feel uncomfortable when they are around autistic people
because their usual ways of communicating do not work as well. This
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Crompton et al. What Is Double Empathy?
Figure 1
Figure 1
Autistic
and non-autistic
people can find it
dicult to understand
each other. The fact
that both people in the
interaction have trouble
with understanding is
why the theory is called
the double empathy
problem.
mismatch between social expectations and experiences can make
communication between autistic and non-autistic people dicult.
That is why building understanding and empathy is described as
a “double problem,” because both autistic and non-autistic people
struggle to understand each other.
WHAT HAS RESEARCH TOLD US SO FAR?
One way that scientists understand double empathy is to see if
people who are not autistic judge autistic and non-autistic people
dierently. Unfortunately, when people who are not autistic find it
hard to understand autistic people, they tend to like them less [2].
In fact, it takes just a few seconds for people who are not autistic to
form negative first impressions about autistic people [3]. Non-autistic
FIRST IMPRESSION
The mental judgement
made when someone
encounters another
person for the first
time. First impressions
help a person decide
whether they want to
be friends with or see
that other person again.
people quickly become less interested in interacting with autistic
people than with other non-autistic people, which means that autistic
people may have fewer opportunities to meet people and make
friends. Why does this happen? It is not because autistic people talk
about things that are less interesting. When non-autistic people read
the words of what autistic people are saying, they do not judge them
any dierently than they judge non-autistic people [3]. So, it really
seems that it is how autistic people appear and sound, and not what
they talk about, that leads non-autistic people to judge and avoid
autistic people. Sadly, this means that autistic people might have fewer
opportunities to make friends or get jobs because of how non-autistic
people judge them, which is not fair.
Another way to explore double empathy is to see if autistic people
connect with other autistic people more easily than they do with
people who are not autistic. This is exactly what some new studies
are showing. Autistic people want to talk to other autistic people,
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Crompton et al. What Is Double Empathy?
sit next to them, or live near them even more than they want to do
these things with non-autistic people [4]. In one study, two unfamiliar
adults got to know each other by talking for 5 min [5]. Sometimes
the two adults were both non-autistic, sometimes both autistic, and
sometimes one of each. You might expect, if autistic people are poor at
social interaction, that the conversations between two autistic people
would go especially badly. But that is not what the study found. The
quality of interactions between two autistic people was just as strong
as between two people who were not autistic. Autistic people even
shared more information about themselves with other autistic people,
suggesting they felt more comfortable with them. This shows that
autistic people are like everyone else: they find it easier to connect
with, and maybe even form friendships with, people who think and
communicate like they do.
Why might autistic people find it easier to understand other autistic
people? Research indicates that autistic people are less likely to rely
on typical social expectations for interacting, or be upset if such
expectations are not followed [6, 7]. This means that autistic people
give each other more freedom to express themselves in unique ways.
We can see evidence of this by looking at how well autistic and
non-autistic people share information with each other. One recent
study was based on the game “Telephone,” in which one person
whispers a message to another person, who then whispers it to
the next person, and so on. The last person then says the message
out loud to see how dierent it is from what the first person said.
Researchers compared how accurately groups of autistic people,
groups of non-autistic people, and groups with a mix of autistic
and non-autistic people shared a story in a game of Telephone [8].
They found that autistic groups share information just as accurately
as non-autistic groups. Mixed groups of autistic and non-autistic
people were much less accurate. This shows that autistic people are
just as able to share information as non-autistic people if they are
with other autistic people. This supports the theory of the double
empathy problem: that there is a two-way diculty when autistic and
non-autistic people interact.
WHAT DO WE STILL NEED TO LEARN ABOUT THE DOUBLE
EMPATHY PROBLEM?
So far, studies of the double empathy problem have focused mainly
on teenagers and adults, and it will be important to see if the
results dier for younger children. For example, if it turns out that
non-autistic children are more positive about autistic people than
non-autistic adults are, this would tell us that negative attitudes about
autistic people are not destined to happen but are learned over time.
Also, because autistic children are more likely now than in the past
to be included in classes and activities with non-autistic children,
this may provide more opportunities for autistic and non-autistic
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Crompton et al. What Is Double Empathy?
children to interact and learn about one another. These increased
opportunities for interaction might help autistic and non-autistic
people to understand each other and decrease the double empathy
problem over time.
Additionally, studies so far have only included autistic people who are
highly verbal and do not have an intellectual disability. According
INTELLECTUAL
DISABILITY
A disability
characterized by
diculty with learning.
A person with an
intellectual disability
might take longer to
learn and may need
support when
developing new skills,
understanding
information, and
interacting with others.
to the theory, the double empathy problem would be even greater
between non-autistic people and autistic people who have an
intellectual disability, but further research is needed to see if this is the
case. Another avenue of research is to explore the eect of familiarity
of a relationship. For example, how does the double empathy problem
dier when communicating with a stranger vs. a family member?
Family members share backgrounds, experiences, and environments,
which suggests that the double empathy problem may be reduced
within familiar relationships. However, research has shown that
familiarity can sometimes create additional barriers. For example,
thinking we know someone well might prevent us from listening and
understanding what is really being communicated [9].
Finally, although new research suggests that autistic people may
communicate more eectively and more comfortably with other
autistic people, we do not yet know exactly how or why this occurs.
The double empathy theory would suggest that having similar ways
of understanding the world helps people understand each other
and connect. Understanding whether there are specific ways of
communicating that underlie this connection could help us identify
ways to bridge the gap in communication between autistic and
non-autistic people.
WHY IS THIS RESEARCH IMPORTANT?
Social interactions are a gateway to many things in life—from buying
a bus ticket to interviewing for a job. Because most people are not
autistic, most social interactions fit the non-autistic communication
style but might not work as well for autistic people. Autistic
people must navigate many social interactions that are dicult
to understand.
By finding out more about how the double empathy problem plays out
in real life, we can help non-autistic and autistic people to understand
each other better and help them to “meet in the middle.” Improving
our understanding of the ways that autistic and non-autistic people
interact might help autistic people to find it easier to spend time
with non-autistic friends and family as well as non-autistic teachers,
doctors, and employers. It may help people who are not autistic not
to leap to conclusions based on assumptions about autistic people
and to be less judgmental of them. This research may also provide
people who are not autistic with more creative and accessible ways of
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Crompton et al. What Is Double Empathy?
communicating with others. Overall, for both people who are autistic
and those who are not, understanding how each other communicates
can help us build understanding and make the world more inclusive
and accepting of everyone—and that is important!
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The authors would like to give special thanks to Joe Cebula (aged 12),
Minny Fletcher-Watson (aged 10), Sophie Morrison (aged 10), and Abe
Sasson (aged 9) for their help in making our article more accessible to
a young audience.
REFERENCES
1. Milton, D. E. M., Heasman, B., and Sheppard, E. 2020. “Double empathy,” in
Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders, ed F. R. Volkmar (New York, NY:
Springer). p. 1–9. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-6435-8_102273-2
2. Alkhaldi, R. S., Sheppard, E., and Mitchell, P. 2019. Is there a link between autistic
people being perceived unfavorably and having a mind that is dicult to read? J.
Autism Dev. Disord. 49:3973–82. doi: 10.1007/s10803-019-04101-1
3. Sasson, N. J., Faso, D. J., Nugent, J., Lovell, S., Kennedy, D. P., and Grossman, R.
B. 2017. Neurotypical peers are less willing to interact with those with autism
based on thin slice judgments. Sci. Rep. 7:40700. doi: 10.1038/srep40700
4. DeBrabander, K. M., Morrison, K. E., Jones, D. R., Faso, D. J., Chmielewski, M.,
and Sasson, N. J. 2019. Do first impressions of autistic adults dier between
autistic and nonautistic observers? Autism Adulthood 1:250–7. doi: 10.1089/
aut.2019.0018
5. Morrison, K. E., DeBrabander, K. M., Jones, D. R., Faso, D. J., Ackerman, R. A., and
Sasson, N. J. 2019. Outcomes of real-world social interaction for autistic adults
paired with autistic compared to typically developing partners. Autism
24:1067–80. doi: 10.1177/1362361319892701
6. Heasman, B., and Gillespie, A. 2019. Neurodivergent intersubjectivity: distinctive
features of how autistic people create shared understanding. Autism 23:910–21.
doi: 10.1177/1362361318785172
7. Crompton, C. J., Hallett, S., Ropar, D., Flynn, E., and Fletcher-Watson, S. 2020. ‘I
never realised everybody felt as happy as I do when I am around autistic people’:
a thematic analysis of autistic adults’ relationships with autistic and neurotypical
friends and family. Autism 24:1438–48. doi: 10.1177/1362361320908976
8. Crompton, C. J., Ropar, D., Evans-Williams, C. V., Flynn, E. G., and
Fletcher-Watson, S. (2020). Autistic peer-to-peer information transfer is highly
eective. Autism 24:1704–12. doi: 10.1177/1362361320919286
9. Heasman, B., and Gillespie, A. 2018. Perspective-taking is two sided:
Misunderstandings between people with Asperger’s syndrome and their family
members. Autism 22:740–50. doi: 10.1177/1362361317708287
SUBMITTED: 23 April 2020; ACCEPTED: 09 April 2021;
PUBLISHED ONLINE: 11 May 2021.
kids.frontiersin.org May 2021 | Volume 09 |Article 554875 |6
Crompton et al. What Is Double Empathy?
EDITED BY: Eilidh Cage, University of Stirling, United Kingdom
CITATION: Crompton CJ, DeBrabander K, Heasman B, Milton D and Sasson NJ
(2021) Double Empathy: Why Autistic People Are Often Misunderstood. Front.
Young Minds 9:554875. doi: 10.3389/frym.2021.554875
CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The authors declare that the research was conducted in
the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed
as a potential conflict of interest.
COPYRIGHT © 2021 Crompton, DeBrabander, Heasman, Milton and Sasson. This
is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums
is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited
and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted
academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not
comply with these terms.
YOUNG REVIEWERS
AMELIA, AGE: 15
I am studying for my GCSEs at the local high school in Northumberland, England
and I am enjoying all my subjects, both arts and humanities as well as the
sciences. I am particularly interested in language and how people think, what makes
people dierent, how dierent people react in dierent situations and what are
people’s motivations for their actions. I also love reading and language–how it
changes and evolves. I am currently hoping to study psychology and/or linguistics
at university.
ANAND, AGE: 13
An avid learner of science and history, Anand enjoys biology and health science. His
specific areas of interest are neuroscience and neurosurgery. Outside of academics,
Anand’s hobbies includes participating in spelling bees and learning more about
roller coasters. He is a black belt in Tang So Do karate.
AUTHORS
CATHERINE J. CROMPTON
Catherine Crompton is a researcher in Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh.
She is interested in understanding the diverse ways that people communicate, and
particularly how autistic people communicate. *catherine.crompton@ed.ac.uk
KILEE DEBRABANDER
Kilee DeBrabander is a researcher at The University of Texas at Dallas who studies
adults with autism and how they are judged based on various characteristics of
their personalities and abilities. She also looks at how these judgements may dier
kids.frontiersin.org May 2021 | Volume 09 |Article 554875 |7
Crompton et al. What Is Double Empathy?
depending on if they tell other people about their autism diagnosis, if they are in a
social situation or a work/school setting, or if the person making the judgements
knows more about what autism is.
BRETT HEASMAN
Brett Heasman is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at York St John University. He is
interested in understanding communication, interaction, and how to remove the
barriers that face people who have hidden dierences.
DAMIAN MILTON
Damian Milton is a lecturer at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent and is an expert
in autism research. He is interested in exploring the autistic experience and involving
autistic people and people with learning disabilities in research.
NOAH J. SASSON
Noah Sasson is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at
Dallas. He teaches college students, trains future scientists, and leads a research
laboratory that tries to better understand why autistic people often experience
social diculties.
kids.frontiersin.org May 2021 | Volume 09 |Article 554875 |8
... 37 According to the double empathy problem, empathy is a two-way process that depends on expectations from previous social experiences that can be very different for autistic and nonautistic people. 38 These differences can lead to difficulties in communication and developing a shared perspective between the therapist and the autistic client (as opposed to just the autistic client having difficulties with a shared perspective), with both therapist and client needing to work on addressing differences in communication styles. 39,40 Crompton et al. 38 conclude ''By finding out more about how the double empathy problem plays out in real life, we can help non-autistic and autistic people to understand each other better and help them to 'meet in the middle' (p. ...
... 38 These differences can lead to difficulties in communication and developing a shared perspective between the therapist and the autistic client (as opposed to just the autistic client having difficulties with a shared perspective), with both therapist and client needing to work on addressing differences in communication styles. 39,40 Crompton et al. 38 conclude ''By finding out more about how the double empathy problem plays out in real life, we can help non-autistic and autistic people to understand each other better and help them to 'meet in the middle' (p. 5).'' ...
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Background: Autistic people may be at a higher risk of drug and alcohol misuse than the general population. Autistic people, however, are under-represented within drug and alcohol support services. This is the first survey of drug and alcohol therapists' perceptions of current service provision for autistic clients and recommendations for reasonable adjustments that therapists can make to enhance successful outcomes. Methods: We conducted an online survey of 122 drug and alcohol therapists, exploring therapists' demographics, training and experience with autistic clients, approaches and adaptations used with autistic clients, and therapists' confidence with autistic clients. Within two focus groups, 11 members of the autistic and broader autism (e.g., family members, professionals) communities reflected on the reasonable adjustments reported by therapists. Results: Most therapists had autistic clients and most therapists had received no autism-specific training. 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By asking specifically about autistic clients, we may have biased responses from therapists who have worked with autistic adults. The findings from this study highlight that treatment programs for drug and alcohol misuse do not consider the needs of autistic adults. However, they also suggest that various approaches and adaptions can be made to support autistic clients. In addition to supporting adaptions made by therapists, the guidance developed could be a useful framework for autistic clients to discuss their session-support needs with therapists. Future research should look at the effectiveness of these adaptions in improving treatment outcomes for autistic clients.
... Recent work has suggested that AUT-AUT interactions may qualitatively differ from TD-TD or TD-AUT interactions, including features relevant to cToM, such as a generous assumption of common ground (Heasman & Gillespie, 2019), and in ways that impact interaction success (Granieri et al., 2020;Morrison et al., 2020). Such findings support the idea of the double empathy problem (Milton, 2012), in which social interaction difficulties are attributed not solely to the AUT individual, but to a breakdown in communication resulting from the different experiences and expectations of AUT and neurotypical people (Crompton et al., 2021). Thus, rather than being a static trait of an individual, cToM may be intrinsically tied to the dyadic context created between an individual and a particular partner, and an important aspect of this context may be the match or mismatch in autism status. ...
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... Milton (2012) proposes that when people experience the world differently, they will have difficulty empathising with each other. Empathy requires the internal states of others to be recognised and understood (Crompton et al., 2021). Identifying the mental and affective state of others such as remorse, requires the ability of the perceiver to empathise with the other (Goldstein & Winner, 2012). ...
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Although people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are not more likely to commit crimes, they are overrep-resented in the criminal justice system as reported by Howlin (Autism and Asperger syndrome: Preparing for adulthood, Routledge, 2004). This may, in part, be due to unfavourable interactions with the criminal judiciary. Evidence suggests the autistic population are perceived unfavourably in adjudicative proceedings resulting in harsher penalties. The present study explores whether ASD offenders (ASD-O) receive longer sentences compared to national sentencing data. Sentencing data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) were used to compare ASD-O with similar offences. ASD-O attracted longer sentences across all offence classifications. Inferential analyses indicated sexual assault sentences were significantly higher in the ASD-O sample. No significant differences were found for murder, manslaughter, and assault (PDF) Brief Report: Sentencing Outcomes for Offenders on the Autism Spectrum. Available from: https://rdcu.be/cqjXu
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Hoy, con las transformaciones recientes en las prácticas de lectura, esta ha dejado de ser un concepto unívoco que refiere exclusivamente al acto de descifrar el código alfabético para abarcar una variedad de acciones interpretativas y de creación de significados múltiples a través de varios lenguajes. Estos cambios han propiciado el reconocimiento de diferentes formas de leer y han dado mayor visibilidad a la pluralidad de los lectores, quienes interpretan las intrincadas redes de sentidos que conforman su realidad partiendo de sus habilidades e intereses particulares, y desde un trasfondo personal, social y cultural que determina la manera en que comprenden y recrean estos sentidos.
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Background Sex education is essential as it equips individuals with the knowledge to live independent and safe sex lives. However, in the United Kingdom, sex education is not particularly accessible for autistic learners which may lead to a lack of knowledge around appropriate sexual behaviours. Aims The current study focusses on the challenges of teaching sex education to autistic learners. Methods and procedures The data was produced through one-to-one interviews with thirteen educational practitioners that have experienced delivering sex education to autistic learners. Outcomes and results Reflexive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) was used to interpret the data, producing themes of (1) Pedagogical Restrictions, and (2) Sexual Impulses. Conclusions and implications These findings demonstrated that the main challenges of teaching sex education to autistic learners pertained to Pedagogical Restrictions in the classroom, and learners’ own sexual impulses. These findings are a positive step towards understanding how to adapt sex education lessons to make them more inclusive and accessible for learners with autism. This study contributes to developing understanding around how to support autistic learners, highlighting gaps in the current sex education curriculum for policy makers, and enabling those surrounding autistic individuals to best support them with body transformations.
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Compared with their neurotypical (NT) counterparts, persons with autism appear to be less inclined to tell lies and less skilled in delivering sophisticated forms of deception. At the same time, some forms of deception like white lies and prosocial lies are frequent in human interaction because they are important for social success. This article challenges the reader to evaluate the therapeutic potential for prosocial deception and teaching white-lie telling to autistic persons. The nature and development of antisocial and prosocial lying in NT development and autism are reviewed. Considerations for when to (and when not to) teach the skill of empathic lying are discussed and recommendations for how to teach the comprehension and production of prosocial lies are offered.
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Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has negatively affected the lives of people with disabilities; therefore, they need fast vaccination allocation. However, many countries, especially the Republic of Korea, have hesitated to vaccinate people with disabilities. This opinion article will explain why vaccine allocation priority is required for autistic people and people with disabilities in the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, including reporting on self-quarantine's stresses and psychological burdens.
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Lay abstract: Sharing information with other people relies on the ability to communicate well. Autism is defined clinically by deficits in social communication. It may therefore be expected that autistic people find it difficult to share information with other people. We wanted to find out whether this was the case, and whether it was different when autistic people were sharing information with other autistic people or with non-autistic people. We recruited nine groups, each with eight people. In three of the groups, everyone was autistic; in three of the groups, everyone was non-autistic; and three of the groups were mixed groups where half the group was autistic and half the group was non-autistic. We told one person in each group a story and asked them to share it with another person, and for that person to share it again and so on, until everyone in the group had heard the story. We then looked at how many details of the story had been shared at each stage. We found that autistic people share information with other autistic people as well as non-autistic people do with other non-autistic people. However, when there are mixed groups of autistic and non-autistic people, much less information is shared. Participants were also asked how they felt they had got on with the other person in the interaction. The people in the mixed groups also experienced lower rapport with the person they were sharing the story with. This finding is important as it shows that autistic people have the skills to share information well with one another and experience good rapport, and that there are selective problems when autistic and non-autistic people are interacting.
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Lay abstract: Although autistic people may struggle to interact with others, many autistic people have said they find interacting with other autistic people more comfortable. To find out whether this was a common experience, we did hour-long interviews with 12 autistic adults. We asked them questions about how it feels when spending time with their friends and family, and whether it felt different depending on whether the friends and family were autistic or neurotypical. We analysed the interviews and found three common themes in what our participants said. First, they found spending with other autistic people easier and more comfortable than spending time with neurotypical people, and felt they were better understood by other autistic people. Second, autistic people often felt they were in a social minority, and in order to spend time with neurotypical friends and family, they had to conform with what the neurotypical people wanted and were used to. Third, autistic people felt like they belonged with other autistic people and that they could be themselves around them. These findings show that having time with autistic friends and family can be very beneficial for autistic people and played an important role in a happy social life.
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The link between autistic people having a mind that is difficult to read (by neurotypical participants) and being perceived unfavorably was investigated. Videoed Autistic and neurotypical targets from Sheppard et al. (PLOS ONE 7(11):e49859, 2016) were scored for how readable they were when reacting to a distinctive greeting from the experimenter. These videos were presented to new groups of perceivers (neurotypical adults) who rated neurotypical targets more socially favorably than autistic targets irrespective of whether details of the experimenter’s greeting were concealed (Study 1) or disclosed (Study 2). Target readability correlated with ratings of target favorability (r = .58 and r = .63), independent of target diagnosis. Perceivers might rate targets unfavorably because they experience difficulty reading them, though other interpretations of the correlation are also possible.
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Autistic people are neurologically divergent, yet approaches to studying autism are framed by neurotypical definitions of being social. Using the concept of intersubjectivity, which conceptualises a variety of ways of socially relating, we investigate distinctive features of how autistic people build social understanding. A total of 30 members of a charity supporting adults with autism were video-recorded during a social activity they enjoyed, namely collaborative video gaming. Mapping the coherence, affect and symmetry of each conversational turn revealed shifting patterns of intersubjectivity within each interaction. Focussing on clusters of consistent and fragmented turns led us to identify two features of neurodivergent intersubjectivity: a generous assumption of common ground that, when understood, led to rapid rapport, and, when not understood, resulted in potentially disruptive utterances; and a low demand for coordination that ameliorated many challenges associated with disruptive turns. Our findings suggest that neurodivergent intersubjectivity reveals potential for unconventional forms of social relating and that a within-interaction analysis is a viable methodology for exploring neurodivergent communication. Future research should examine the varieties of neurodivergent intersubjectivity, with associated problems and potentials, and how those forms of intersubjectivity can be enabled to flourish, particularly in autistic-to-neurotypical encounters.
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Misunderstandings are social in nature, always having two sides. Yet the misunderstandings experienced by people with Asperger's syndrome are usually studied in terms of the individual with a diagnosis, with less emphasis on social relations. We use a two-sided methodology to map out misunderstandings within 22 dyads (n = 44) consisting of people with Asperger's syndrome and their family members. Both sides of the relationship were asked about 12 topics in terms of one's rating of Self, one's rating of Other and one's predicted rating by Other. The findings show that people with Asperger's are able to predict lower scores from family members, despite disagreeing with their view, and that family members often over-estimate the extent to which their relatives with Asperger's syndrome are egocentrically anchored in their own perspective. The research demonstrates that a two-sided methodology is viable, and it uses it to identify how representations of Asperger's syndrome can both support and hinder social understanding within relationships affected by Asperger's.
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Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including those who otherwise require less support, face severe difficulties in everyday social interactions. Research in this area has primarily focused on identifying the cognitive and neurological differences that contribute to these social impairments, but social interaction by definition involves more than one person and social difficulties may arise not just from people with ASD themselves, but also from the perceptions, judgments, and social decisions made by those around them. Here, across three studies, we find that first impressions of individuals with ASD made from thin slices of real-world social behavior by typically-developing observers are not only far less favorable across a range of trait judgments compared to controls, but also are associated with reduced intentions to pursue social interaction. These patterns are remarkably robust, occur within seconds, do not change with increased exposure, and persist across both child and adult age groups. However, these biases disappear when impressions are based on conversational content lacking audio-visual cues, suggesting that style, not substance, drives negative impressions of ASD. Collectively, these findings advocate for a broader perspective of social difficulties in ASD that considers both the individual’s impairments and the biases of potential social partners.
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Differences in social communication and interaction styles between autistic and typically developing have been studied in isolation and not in the context of real-world social interaction. The current study addresses this “blind spot” by examining whether real-world social interaction quality for autistic adults differs when interacting with typically developing relative to autistic partners. Participants (67 autism spectrum disorder, 58 typically developing) were assigned to one of three dyadic partnerships (autism–autism: n = 22; typically developing–typically developing: n = 23; autism–typically developing: n = 25; 55 complete dyads, 15 partial dyads) in which they completed a 5-min unstructured conversation with an unfamiliar person and then assessed the quality of the interaction and their impressions of their partner. Although autistic adults were rated as more awkward, less attractive, and less socially warm than typically developing adults by both typically developing and autistic partners, only typically developing adults expressed greater interest in future interactions with typically developing relative to autistic partners. In contrast, autistic participants trended toward an interaction preference for other autistic adults and reported disclosing more about themselves to autistic compared to typically developing partners. 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 an individual impairment.
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Background: Autistic adults receive unfavorable first impressions from typically developing (TD) adults, but these impressions improve when TD adults are made aware of their diagnosis. It remains unclear, however, how autistic adults form first impressions of other autistic adults, and whether their impressions are similarly affected by diagnostic awareness. Methods: In this study, 32 autistic and 32 TD adults viewed brief videos of 20 TD and 20 autistic adults presented either with or without their diagnostic status and rated them on character traits and their interest in interacting with them in the future. Results: Findings indicated that autistic raters shared the TD tendency to evaluate autistic adults less favorably than TD adults, but these judgments did not reduce their social interest for interacting with autistic adults as they did for TD raters. Furthermore, informing raters of the diagnostic status of autistic adults did not improve first impressions for autistic raters as they did for TD raters, suggesting that autistic raters either already inferred their autism status when no diagnosis was provided or their impression formation is less affected by awareness of a person's diagnosis. Conclusions: Collectively, these results demonstrate that autistic observers make trait inferences about autistic adults comparable with those made by TD observers-suggesting a similar sensitivity to perceiving and interpreting social signifiers that differ between TD and autistic presentation styles-but unlike their TD counterparts, these trait judgments are not perceived as an impediment to subsequent social interaction and are relatively consistent regardless of diagnostic disclosure.