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Autistics Make Others Uncomfortable, Instantly

Autis­tics make oth­er peo­ple uncom­fort­able, and we do this almost instant­ly upon meet­ing. In my com­mu­ni­ca­tions class­es, I teach about the 50 to 500 mil­lisec­onds dur­ing which most peo­ple devel­op first impres­sions. These impres­sions are dif­fi­cult, near­ly impos­si­ble, to coun­ter­act with evi­dence and famil­iar­i­ty.

Know­ing us doesn’t undo the ini­tial dis­com­fort of meet­ing usThat is the cost of autism.

Recent­ly, I was asked how to help an autis­tic col­lege stu­dent deal with what he per­ceived as rejec­tion by instruc­tors and peers. As I researched his self-report­ed expe­ri­ences com­pared to the sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture, I came across a 2016 meta-analy­sis of three pre­vi­ous stud­ies. This sen­tence, nes­tled with­in the find­ings, caught my atten­tion and changed my per­spec­tive before reply­ing to the col­lege stu­dent and his dis­abil­i­ty ser­vices sup­port provider.

Neg­a­tive first impres­sions by adults may affect how chil­dren with ASD are per­ceived and treat­ed by edu­ca­tors, and sim­i­lar impres­sions by same-age observers may lim­it the for­ma­tion of social net­works and friend­ships.

The 2016 paper, excerpt­ed below, found that the sense of rejec­tion was pos­si­bly jus­ti­fied. The thin-slice judg­ments occur­ring when peo­ple meet do lead neu­ro­log­i­cal­ly typ­i­cal peers and adults to avoid and reject autis­tics of all ages. I’m uncer­tain if any amount of train­ing or ther­a­py can undo the autis­tic traits that lead to this rejec­tion. It might be our neu­rolo­gies make it dif­fi­cult to com­pen­sate for how we are: atyp­i­cal by nature.

How peo­ple react to us is not mere­ly cul­tur­al — no mat­ter how much some peo­ple wish that to be the case. Autism is not a cul­tur­al dis­or­der. Cul­ture might mag­ni­fy our chal­lenges, but it does not cre­ate them. How peo­ple react to autis­tics is beyond our con­trol, mak­ing autism even more iso­lat­ing and frus­trat­ing. Our social inter­ac­tions involve two or more peo­ple, all mis­un­der­stand­ing each oth­er for some rea­son. This explains why many of us are most com­fort­able work­ing from home and online as adults. Our words are okay, as long as they exist beyond us, frozen. Even online inter­ac­tions are prob­lem­at­ic in real-time. Asyn­chro­nous com­mu­ni­ca­tion works best for autis­tics.

Neu­rotyp­i­cal Peers are Less Will­ing to Inter­act with Those with Autism based on Thin Slice Judg­ments

Noah J. Sas­son, Daniel J. Faso, Jack Nugent, Sarah Lovell, Daniel P. Kennedy, and Ruth B. Gross­man

10 Octo­ber 2016


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.

How to cite this arti­cle: Sas­son, N. J. et al. Neu­rotyp­i­cal Peers are Less Will­ing to Inter­act with Those with Autism based on Thin Slice Judg­ments. Sci. Rep. 6, 40700; doi: 10.1038/srep40700 (2016).

This work is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons Attri­bu­tion 4.0 Inter­na­tion­al License.

It does not mat­ter what the cog­ni­tive lev­el of the autis­tic might be, the social impair­ments remain defin­ing aspects of autism. In my expe­ri­ence, (for­give the clin­i­cal and mis­lead­ing term) high-func­tion­ing autis­tic stu­dents are extreme­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to depres­sion stem­ming from social rejec­tion. The alien­ation does not decline with age and seems par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult dur­ing high school and col­lege. Being aware of social iso­la­tion through obser­va­tions of oth­ers rein­forces the sense of lone­li­ness.


Indi­vid­u­als with autism spec­trum dis­or­der (ASD) are char­ac­ter­ized by impair­ments in social inter­ac­tion that con­tribute to broad social dis­abil­i­ties and poor func­tion­al out­comes. Across the lifes­pan, these impair­ments are asso­ci­at­ed with small­er social net­works and few­er friend­ships, dif­fi­cul­ty secur­ing and retain­ing employ­ment, high rates of lone­li­ness, and an over­all reduced qual­i­ty of life. Such poor out­comes per­sist even for indi­vid­u­als with ASD who have aver­age to above aver­age intel­li­gence.

There are many rea­sons we fail social­ly. Autis­tics might be aware of social norms — we might even mem­o­rize the rou­tines — but social inter­ac­tions involve more than mem­o­rized rou­tines. We must rec­og­nize that…

…social inter­ac­tion qual­i­ty is not only pred­i­cat­ed upon social abil­i­ty but also social expres­sion, and many aspects of social pre­sen­ta­tion are atyp­i­cal in ASD, includ­ing abnor­mal facial expres­siv­i­ty, anom­alous use of gaze, low­er rates or unusu­al tim­ing of expres­sive ges­tures, vio­la­tions of per­son­al space, and unusu­al vocal prosody.

Based on the respons­es of “typ­i­cal­ly devel­op­ing” (TD) peers, our facial expres­sions are wrong, our eye con­tact is wrong, our ges­tures are wrong, our dis­tance is wrong, and our voic­es are wrong. How many “wrongs” can we cor­rect through con­scious effort? Not many, because con­scious effort requires more than the 50–500 mil­lisec­onds we have to make a good impres­sion. We start off poor­ly with peo­ple and our reac­tions to the rejec­tion lead to yet more rejec­tion and alien­ation.

How peo­ple respond to unfa­mil­iar indi­vid­u­als pri­or to social inter­ac­tion is gov­erned in large part by first impres­sions, which are near instan­ta­neous judg­ments of per­son­al­i­ty and char­ac­ter traits based upon “thin slices” of infor­ma­tion. First impres­sions are asso­ci­at­ed with imme­di­ate behav­ioral respons­es and long-last­ing atti­tudes. Where­as pos­i­tive first impres­sions can evoke approach behav­iors, 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.

It isn’t the autistic’s words being reject­ed… it is the autis­tic social being that is reject­ed. Our thoughts are val­ued; we are not. That might seem like harsh hyper­bole, but the real­i­ty is that I have been asked to take cours­es online because I made oth­ers uncom­fort­able. The phys­i­cal me, The Autis­tic Me, was reject­ed as a mem­ber of the class, not my intel­lec­tu­al con­tri­bu­tions. As the study notes,


Our find­ings show that neg­a­tive first impres­sions of adults with ASD occurred only when audio and/or visu­al infor­ma­tion was present, and not when the tran­script of their speech con­tent was eval­u­at­ed (Study 1).

It isn’t what we say but how we say it that leads peo­ple to avoid and reject autis­tics. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it gets worse. Even pho­tographs of autis­tics received neg­a­tive emo­tion­al respons­es, while pho­tos of neu­rotyp­i­cal con­trols did not. Some­how, we look atyp­i­cal.

… a sta­t­ic image was suf­fi­cient for gen­er­at­ing neg­a­tive first impres­sions of those with ASD.… In con­trast, first impres­sions of TD [typ­i­cal­ly devel­op­ing] con­trols improved with the addi­tion of a visu­al infor­ma­tion, sug­gest­ing that unlike the ASD group, visu­al cues helped rather than hurt the impres­sions they made on observers.

We also demon­strate that neg­a­tive impres­sions remain sta­ble across mul­ti­ple thin-slice judg­ments. A series of ran­dom­ly select­ed sta­t­ic images of col­lege-aged indi­vid­u­als with ASD col­lect­ed from a first-per­son per­spec­tive dur­ing social inter­ac­tion were con­sis­tent­ly rat­ed as less approach­able and more awk­ward than matched con­trols, with observers indi­cat­ing a low­er like­li­hood of being friends with mem­bers of the ASD group (Study 2).

From across a class­room, from across a quad or court­yard, peo­ple sense the autis­tic is dif­fer­ent. Our pro­fes­sors rec­og­nize this, too. We are imme­di­ate­ly sized up, before we say a word. Peo­ple instant­ly want to avoid autis­tics, and this desire to avoid us includes well-trained, social­ly con­scious, edu­ca­tors at all lev­els. When a teacher rejects us, we expe­ri­ence the clos­ing of a path towards nor­mal­cy and suc­cess. If edu­ca­tion isn’t a safe space for autis­tics, no space will be suf­fi­cient­ly tol­er­ant and accept­ing.

Neg­a­tive first impres­sions by adults may affect how chil­dren with ASD are per­ceived and treat­ed by edu­ca­tors, and sim­i­lar impres­sions by same-age observers may lim­it the for­ma­tion of social net­works and friend­ships.

Autis­tics expe­ri­ence almost dai­ly rejec­tion of our autis­tic traits. My wife and chil­dren do react neg­a­tive­ly to some of my traits, and I am painful­ly aware of this. But, they don’t reject me. Strangers, how­ev­er, have that oppor­tu­ni­ty to avoid me and to reject me.

If you aren’t autis­tic, con­sid­er what a job inter­view means for us. A first date. The first day of school. Every sit­u­a­tion with strangers is a sit­u­a­tion in which we will be judged. There’s almost no way to pre­pare peo­ple for a first impres­sion. The only method to pre­pare peo­ple that I can envi­sion is to send an email explain­ing, “I am autis­tic and…” but that’s not how I want to enter a job inter­view.

The researchers offer an ide­al­is­tic (unre­al­is­tic) solu­tion:

If our goal is to improve social inter­ac­tions for indi­vid­u­als with ASD, it may there­fore be equal­ly impor­tant to edu­cate oth­ers to be more aware and accept­ing of social pre­sen­ta­tion dif­fer­ences, rather than try­ing to change the many inter­wo­ven fac­tors of self-pre­sen­ta­tion that mark the expres­sions of indi­vid­u­als with ASD as atyp­i­cal.

What about the stu­dent who con­tact­ed me? I passed along this research and sug­gest­ed train­ing for his instruc­tors. I also asked per­mis­sion to explain why this research is impor­tant to those of us in high­er edu­ca­tion. We need to be able to judge our stu­dents on their abil­i­ties, not how we feel about them. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it is impos­si­ble to inter­act with peo­ple in a neu­tral man­ner, no mat­ter how hard every good teacher tries to be neu­tral towards stu­dents. Body lan­guage and tone always reveal how peo­ple feel about each oth­er.

At least research con­firms that being autis­tic makes it dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate social inter­ac­tions. Too bad life is most­ly lived through social inter­ac­tions.

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  1. Laurella Desborough Laurella Desborough

    When I grew up, there was no autism. At least none defined. Dur­ing those years, the fifties and six­ties, peo­ple were just peo­ple. Indi­vid­u­als were gen­er­al­ly liked or dis­liked on the basis of their behav­ior and known char­ac­ter. Teach­ers would work with kids who had dif­fi­cul­ties in school, what­ev­er those dif­fi­cul­ties were. I have to won­der if these labels are help­ful in any way. Or do the labels them­selves cause indi­vid­u­als to behave dif­fer­ent­ly and to be so sen­si­tive to pos­si­ble rejec­tion that these emo­tions are close to the sur­face and the emo­tions will cause new con­tacts to back off, sens­ing the emo­tions? This would def­i­nite­ly occur with ani­mals inter­act­ing. So, do these labels cre­ate an inter­nal “pro­gram” which makes it more dif­fi­cult for those with autism?

    • Jane Jane

      No, this is com­plete­ly incor­rect, wrong, and hurt­ful to those who have asd. I was diag­nosed in my mid-thir­ties, and not hav­ing a “label” as you call it did not pre­vent me from being reject­ed, iso­lat­ed, or hav­ing the few friends I thought I actu­al­ly made sud­den­ly reject me seem­ing­ly with­out rea­son. That “label” that I final­ly got after 33 years final­ly offered an expla­na­tion and has helped me repair rela­tion­ships as it’s offered a rea­son and under­stand­ing for the the “puz­zling behav­ior” that peo­ple saw in me over the years. That “puz­zling behav­ior” was me sim­ply being my autis­tic self, and is not some­thing I can change, nor is some­thing I was even aware of for many many years. Hav­ing a diag­noses as a child would have gone a long way in help­ing me through­out the years, and I could maybe have avoid­ed a lot of pain and heartache.

    • I didn’t have a label grow­ing up even in the 90’s, but I expe­ri­enced all of this.

      But back in the 50’s and 60’s, there wasn’t real­ly a diag­no­sis of “high func­tion­ing autism”, but every com­mu­ni­ty had the odd or eccen­tric per­son they ostra­cized or warned their kids about. Some employ­ers had piece-meal work for those who couldn’t func­tion in most jobs, like fill­ing the cof­fee and sort­ing the mail, but they weren’t treat­ed like they were part of the social struc­ture of the com­pa­ny. And every­one knows the odd lit­tle lady that was nev­er able to get mar­ried.

      There may not have been words for it, but we exist­ed.

    • Leigh Leigh

      Labels are irrel­e­vant. I grew up in the 50s and 60s and nev­er could fig­ure out why nobody seemed to like me, why I had no friends, and why I always end­ed up by myself. I spent most of my young adult­hood try­ing to fig­ure out how to get peo­ple to like me but with­out suc­cess. I even­tu­al­ly learned canned respons­es and emo­tion­al reac­tions, but those hon­est­ly didn’t helped. Hav­ing to inter­act with oth­er adults dur­ing my children’s school years con­firmed (in my mind) that the prob­lem was that I am an unlik­able per­son. It wasn’t until this past year that I became aware of high func­tion­ing autism and once I began to research and under­stand it, my entire life made sense! I’m still learn­ing and I don’t real­ly have any resources except online, so when I read arti­cles like this I want to cry with relief.

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