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Grossman Paper Shows Role of First Impressions of People with Autism

First impressions matter. And a new paper co-authored by Emerson College Associate Professor Ruth Grossman finds that for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), first impressions are less favorable than those of their neurotypical peers, with potentially isolating consequences.

“First Impressions of Individuals with ASD” was based on studies independently conducted by Grossman, who teaches in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department, and colleagues at the University of Texas-Dallas and Indiana University. It was published this week by Scientific Reports, part of the Nature Publishing Group.

“One of the things I think is incredibly strong about this paper is that each of us have been showing this effect [independently],” Grossman said. “Three data sets with similar results make a stronger point that this is serious and holds true across a variety of contexts.”

In Grossman’s study, a group of 14 adolescent boys, half with ASD, half without, were recorded telling stories in which they experienced happiness, surprise, fear, and anger. Two- to four-second clips containing one complete sentence or phrase were take from the sessions and shown to a group of typically developing (TD) adults and adolescents, who were asked to answer questions related to their impressions of the boys.

Grossman found that the boys with ASD were perceived as more awkward, less likely to start a conversation, less likely to have a lot of friends, less likely to get along with others, and more likely to spend time by themselves than the boys without ASD.

The other authors conducted studies with different methodologies and very similar results. One had participants look at different presentations of the same individuals speaking (audio only, video only, audio-video, still image, and a transcript of speech) and asked them to rate them on a variety of traits, including attractiveness, intelligence, awkwardness, and likeability. Another study had participants answer questions about perception and intent to engage based on still images taken from video.

One takeaway from the experiments was that impressions of people with ASD were based primarily on social behavior and communication style, not the content of what the people were saying.

The Indiana University study also asked participants to complete a survey measuring loneliness; those with ASD reported higher rates than TD participants. 

Most of the research into social behaviors of people with ASD has focused on the physical affects and speech patterns of the individuals, but the paper indicates that the social difficulties those with autism experience also can be related to the snap judgments of TD people.

“Whereas positive first impressions can evoke approach behaviors,” the report said, “negative first impressions often prompt rejection or avoidance behaviors. For individuals with ASD, negative perceptions may relate to the social exclusion they frequently experience and affect their ability to successfully navigate the social demands necessary for optimal functional outcomes in adulthood.”

Grossman said this paper shows that more needs to be done to put ASD behaviors into context and show people “what autism looks like.” To that end, she is trying to create an educational package built around the Emerson/Northeast Arc documentary she co-produced, Autism Through My Lens

“This is a call to arms for more education about autism to everyone. If adults looking at adolescents with autism immediately form that impression, what does that say about teachers in schools?”

Grossman’s co-authors are Noah Sasson, Daniel Faso, Jack Nugent, Sarah Lovell, and Daniel Kennedy.

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