Instead of investigating the ability of individuals on the autism spectrum to identify emotions, a new study takes a different approach: how well can neurotypical adults interpret the behavior of adults with autism?
Can neurotypicals determine what type of situation people are experiencing based on their reactions alone?
A Dr. Elizabeth Sheppard and colleagues from the University of Nottingham hypothesized that neurotypicals would have a harder time interpreting behavior of individuals with autism, and their first study supported the hypothesis. The researchers showed 30 neurotypical adults muted video of 40 individuals—half with autism and half without—responding to four situations: being kept waiting, listening to a story, hearing a joke, and being complimented. The participants knew the four situations and identified to which they thought the person in the video was responding, without knowing whether he or she was neurotypical or on the autism spectrum.
The participants were significantly better at identifying the correct situation that elicited the response for neurotypicals than for autistic individuals in the waiting, story, and compliment situations. The participants identified responses to the joke equally well for both groups.
This result contrasts with previous work that showed that the emotions of individuals with ASC were easier to identify than those of neurotypicals. However, a critical difference between these two studies exists. The previous study by Faso et al. (2015) elicited specific emotions from recorded participants by replaying descriptions of events in each of their lives. The current study provided the same events to all participants (joke, story, etc.). Individuals with autism may have different emotional responses than neurotypicals to the same situations, making it harder for neurotypicals to identify the antecedent of various reactions among individuals with autism. Further research could examine how individuals with autism respond to receiving a compliment, for example.
Are there differences in the overall expressiveness of neuortypicals and those on the autism spectrum?
If the individuals with autism were less expressive overall, that would also make it harder to identify the causative event. The authors cited mixed evidence to support that possibility and decided to run a second study to address it. In the second study, new participants watched the same muted videos. Instead of identifying what situation had preceded each recording, they simply rated the responses on a seven-point scale from least to most expressive, without knowing any of the individuals were on the autism spectrum.
The results indicated that as rated by neurotypicals, there was no significant difference between the expressiveness of individuals with and without autism in three of the four situations. Participants deemed the individuals with autism slightly less expressive when given compliments.
How do neurotypicals describe behavioral responses of individuals with and without autism?
These results implied that something other than overall expressiveness might have affected the ability of neurotypicals to identify what situation the individuals with autism were responding to in the first study. So, the authors ran a third study where new neurotypical participants were asked to describe in their own words the responses they observed in the same muted videos, without any other information. The researchers organized the descriptions into three categories: internal states (e.g. “he’s nervous” or “she’s in a good mood”), overt behavior (e.g. “he raised an eyebrow” or “she’s laughing”), and events (e.g. “someone told a joke” or “someone complimented her”). The participants used overt behavior and event descriptions equally to describe the individuals with and without autism. However, they described the internal states of individuals with autism more often than of those without.
While this result surprised the authors at first, they cited research showing that a) in any situation, neurotypical adults tend to explain behavior by describing possible associated mental states, and b) neurotypical adults tend to engage in “effortful mentalizing” (trying to imagine what could be going on) in highly ambiguous situations. So, if the neurotypical participants found the responses of individuals with autism confusing or ambiguous, they would be more likely to try to explain them by guessing at their internal mental state.
Social interaction is a two-way street
The authors of this paper recognize that social interaction and relationship-building are two-way streets. Individuals with autism already encounter social challenges; to be frequently misunderstood by neurotypicals only makes interaction more difficult. Having neurotypical individuals who understand those with autism is just as important as teaching individuals with autism to understand neurotypicals.
Further research could aim to support neurotypicals in interpreting the emotional responses and facial expressions of individuals with autism, possibly patterned after tools that are currently used to identify the underlying function of behaviors in non-verbal individuals with autism.
While it’s crucial that individuals with autism get support to develop their social skills, it might also help if neurotypicals learned how to better understand the different, but equally valid and expressive, responses of individuals with autism. As autism advocate Temple Grandin famously said, autism means “different, not less.”
Sheppard E, Pillai D, Wong GT, Ropar D & Mitchell P. (2015). How easy is it to read the minds of people with autism spectrum disorder?. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1-8. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-015-2662-8.