Substantial gains have been made over the past few decades in improving understanding of autism. Most people are now aware of the existence of autism and a range of high profile media campaigns are generally helping to improve public understanding of autism. However, in the media particularly striking autistic individuals, for example those with savant skills or with particularly challenging behaviour, tend to be over represented.
We realised that before designing research interventions aimed to improve public perceptions of autism, we needed to know what the stereotype of autism is and whether any character traits that people associate with autism are seen as being particularly negative. Stereotypes are short-cuts or sets of traits and characteristics that society ascribes to a particular social group. When people don’t have direct experience of members of a particular social group, they often rely on stereotypes to guide judgements towards members of that social group.
So what is the “autistic stereotype”?
We focussed our recently published research on finding out what the stereotype of autism is among university students, and in particular those students who did not have direct experience of autism (weren’t themselves autistic and did not have a family member or close friend who was autistic) as these are the people who would most likely use stereotypes to guide their judgements. 163 students who had lived in the UK for at least 5 years completed our survey. The students were asked to report the beliefs that they felt society as a whole holds of individuals with Autism Spectrum Conditions. We asked the question this way as it has previously been shown that this is an effective way to accurately elicit stereotypes and reduce the likelihood that people will answer in line with what they believe a socially desirable answer to be.
We found that the stereotype was that autistic people have poor social skills, are introverted and withdrawn, are poor communicators, and have difficult personality traits or behaviours. It was notable that many of the positive skills and traits often expressed by autistic people, such as good attention to detail, honesty, good rote memory, enhanced perception, were absent from the stereotype. Only two of the top 10 stereotypic traits that emerged were rated as positive. These were “high intelligence” and “special abilities”. We hope that this research can be a starting point for improving perceptions of autism, forming the basis for interventions designed to reduce reliance on stereotypes of autistic people. We are now looking for ways to improve public perceptions of autism via research interventions to be conducted on people who are not autistic, and by asking autistic adults to discuss how they feel they are perceived by others in society. We need to break down the barriers that autistic people face on a daily basis and change societal attitudes so that neurodiversity is more effectively embraced!
For the full article see: Wood, C. & Freeth, M., (2016) Students’ Stereotypes of Autism. Journal of Educational Issues, 2 (2), 131-140.