Saturday, 18 February 2017

Social interaction and autism: it takes two to tango

Psychology experiments are not generally fodder for this blog when it comes to autism. The main reason being that quite a few appearing in the peer-reviewed literature tend to look at quite abstract features perhaps somewhat removed from the daily lives of autistic people and their significant others. A few also seem to struggle with the idea that grand over-arching psychological theories (that seem to inevitably follow psychological findings in particular) are not required when it comes to autism in these days of heterogeneity and plurality.

I am making an exception today however with the paper by Noah Sasson and colleagues [1] (open-access) and their findings suggesting advocating "for a broader perspective of social difficulties in ASD [autism spectrum disorder] that considers both the individual’s impairments and the biases of potential social partners." In other words, it takes two to [socially, interactively] tango. I might add that a doctoral thesis by one of the co-authors on the Sasson paper (Daniel Faso) is also available for further inspection too (see here).

Based on the idea that issues with social interaction "quantity and quality" might not be something exclusively under the control of those diagnosed with autism, Sasson et al devised a series of experiments to test their hypothesis: "three studies conceived and conducted independently by three research groups assessing observers’ first impressions of—and intentions to socially engage with— children and adults with ASD based upon “thin slices” of their real-world social behavior." I'm not going to go into too much detail about the experiments because the paper is open-access and you can read about them for yourselves. 'Thin slices' in the context of the experiments carried out referred to media that were rated pertinent to "observers’ first impressions of individuals with ASD engaging in real-world social behavior."

The results make for some important reading as across the different experiments undertaken the key messages were that: "first impressions of individuals with ASD are significantly less favorable than those of matched TD [typically developing] controls, and are associated with greater reluctance on the part of observers to pursue social engagement." Further: "social interaction difficulties in ASD are not solely an individual impairment but also a relational one, and consideration of both of these factors is necessary for a full understanding of social impairment in ASD." I relay all of that bearing in mind that these were experiments carried out under controlled conditions (I don't know about you, but I don't generally rate people at first contact using a "0-3Likert scale or a "non-graduated slider" on 'how approachable' they were or the likelihood of a friendship developing).

Although important, I don't think anyone should be too surprised by the results reported in the context of how first impressions count and how people are generally quick to judge from "personality and character traits" whether social engagement with a person or group of people is going to be a short or longer-term thing. I say this also bearing in mind that minus any psychobabble, people generally take into account things like context, familiarity and similarity when it comes to their social interaction decisions too [if for example, you happen to be a fan of Star Wars or a Shotokan karateka, I might be more inclined to chat with you than say if you talked about the goings-on on various reality TV shows]. Indeed, the authors note: "these studies present only group-wise comparisons and do not address individual differences among those with ASD, nor whether individual characteristics of the raters (e.g., gender, personality, etc.) affect the results reported here." I'd also forward the idea that they might also include important concepts such as self-monitoring for example when it comes to future studies in this area. Similarly, it would also be handy to see if 'comorbidity counts' when it comes to further investigations on this topic in light of expanding links between different labels and traits (see here).

The question of what to do about the Sasson findings similarly provide some food for thought. The authors suggest that: "intervention and education approaches that target both those with ASD as well as their TD [typically developing] peers may offer a more comprehensive approach for improving social and functional outcomes in autism." In the context of other studies looking at social interaction and autism particularly in the school setting (see here) I can see how this might work in terms of raising awareness of how people are not always the same when it comes to the presentation of their social persona. Intervening with a wider group (i.e. peers) and taking the onus off 'just the person with autism' is a win-win situation and will no doubt have other positive knock-on effects in terms of self-esteem and helping to remove barriers around the 'disability' framing of autism. I might add that in these days of the potential virality of personality traits, it makes sense to include everyone.

In a wider context - outside of school - and in the big, wide [adult] world however, I'm slightly less sure of how such intervention is going to be achieved. Yes, we would all love people to be more understanding and less 'judgemental' in their first (and subsequent) impressions, but when it comes to influencing aspects such as views on "awkwardness, attractiveness, [and] likability" I'm not so sure that this can be universally achieved. Indeed, facets such as attractiveness and likability are probably going to be influenced by lots of variables outside of those just linked to an autism diagnosis and its presentation (frank or not). By saying all that, I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't try to educate and perhaps even move people away from the whole 'first impressions last' [2] thing, but rather am looking at the realistic prospect of achieving such a societal goal, mindful that it takes two to tango...

And on the topic of first impressions, at least get the handshake right (i.e. let go)...


[1] Sasson NJ. et al. Neurotypical Peers are Less Willing to Interact with Those with Autism based on Thin Slice Judgments. Sci Rep. 2017 Feb 1;7:40700.

[2] Gunaydin G. et al. Impressions Based on a Portrait Predict, 1-Month Later, Impressions Following a Live Interaction. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2017. 8: 36-44.

---------- Sasson NJ, Faso DJ, Nugent J, Lovell S, Kennedy DP, & Grossman RB (2017). Neurotypical Peers are Less Willing to Interact with Those with Autism based on Thin Slice Judgments. Scientific reports, 7 PMID: 28145411