In the middle of 2018, a group of academics came together, with the realisation that we were all, separately, contributing to a new way of thinking about autism. In various ways we had – implicitly or explicitly – developed a quantiative and experimental test of the predictions of the Double Empathy Problem.
We collected our studies together and sent them in to the International Society for Autism Research, hoping for the opportunity to present our work in a symposium at the 2019 conference in Montreal. Unfortunately our symposium submission was not successful, but the authors of three of the submitted abstracts chose to present their work, individually (not within a symposium), at the conference. This is because INSAR offers abstracts submitted as part of an unsuccessful symposium the chance to be presented individually, as either a poster or a non-symposium spoken presentation.
The purpose of this Library post is to bring together those three abstracts, together with the over-arching symposium pitch, so that people attending #INSAR2019 can attempt to see all three and get a glimpse of the symposium experience we had in mind when we submitted. After the conference, we’ll be supplementing this initial post with more information from our Discussant, Damian Milton, and a podcast featuring the different authors and presenters in conversation.
tl:dr – if you’re at INSAR 2019 you need to see Catherine’s poster on Thursday morning, and at the same time, Kerrianne’s poster also on Thursday morning, and then Brett’s talk on Friday afternoon. But please read more below if you want to find out why we’ve created this post, and see the abstracts we submitted.
But first, a short note.
As seasoned academics, our group is well used to the experience of having research ideas and proposals critiqued. We understand the difficulty of selecting content for the annual conference programme and we’re not challenging the decision of the reviewers or panellists in this case. At the same time, we’re not just proud of this work, we believe it to be transformational, radical, and visionary. (I am allowed to say this because, while I had a small role in developing one study, the work is not mine). I say radical because, while we’re well aware that autistic people have been describing the phenomena we quantify below for years, these independent, experimental demonstrations start to provide the evidence we need to turn those personal stories into policy and practice.
The research below combines experimental elegance, robust quantitative analysis* and progressive socio-political theory. We want people to read about the studies, critique them by all means, and learn something from them – even if that something is “I would have designed that study differently”!
We’ve created this “virtual symposium” so that people at INSAR, and around the world, can see what we did and, especially, draw the disparate threads of these separate studies together, and build on them.
* other forms of analysis are available
Social Interaction in Autism: Challenging Current Models with Innovative Experimental Methods
This is the over-arching abstract for the whole symposium, submitted to try to show why we thought these separate studies should be presented together, and principally written by Sue Fletcher-Watson
Autism is typically defined as a disorder of social communication. However, some evidence is starting to suggest that the diagnostic status and autism-knowledge of the social partner mediates both the presentation, and the experience, of autism in interactive contexts. Indeed, autistic people frequently report a sense of ease when interacting with other autistic people. One explanation for this is encapsulated in the Double Empathy Problem, a theoretical framework which emphasises a mismatch between autistic and non-autistic social partners, rather than a social cognitive deficit within the autistic person.
The symposium will share and examine the latest empirical tests of the Double Empathy Problem. Presenters will report on innovative designs with autistic adults, representing a balance of experimental control and ecological validity. Studies systematically vary the diagnostic status (or apparent diagnostic status) of interaction partners to examine how mismatched dyads interact compared with matched (both autistic, or both non-autistic) dyads.
Taken together these presentations robustly evaluate the Double Empathy Problem, moving further from reliance on anecdotal evidence. The findings will be critically discussed in terms of their relevance to understanding the full range of presentations under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder.
Efficiency and interaction during information transfer between autistic and neurotypical people
You can see this as a poster, number 30110, on Thursday, May 2, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM, in room 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal), and here’s a link to the relevant online programme page.
Background: Social cognition is an umbrella term referring to behaviours thought to be necessary for successful interactions with others. To date, most social cognition research in autism has focused on apparent deficits on traditional laboratory tasks, which in theory underpin difficulties in real-world interactions with others. If social cognition is impaired in autism, interactions between two autistic people should be especially challenging. However, multiple autistic first-person accounts suggest that autistic people find interacting with other autistic people more comfortable, successful and satisfying compared with interacting with neurotypical adults.
In this study, we adapted a cultural learning paradigm used widely in comparative psychology, to explore transmission of information between individuals, contrasting autistic, neurotypical, and mixed neurotypical/autistic pairs.
One possibility is that transmitting information to someone of a different neurotype is more demanding because of cognitive resources being required to, for example, mask autistic behaviours or interpret different social cues. This may result in less computational power to dedicate to the experimental task, reflected in reduced accuracy. Alternatively, or additionally, transmitting information to someone from a different diagnostic group might be harder because a lack of interpersonal affiliation reduces motivation to attend to the other person, or to replicate their actions precisely. This would result in lower feelings of rapport and less engagement in the task.
Objective: To examine whether performance on cultural transmission tasks varies depending on the diagnostic status of the social partner.
Methods: Using a ‘diffusion chain’ technique – a controlled, experimental form of “telephone” which probes cultural learning between individuals in a group – a researcher told the first participant in each chain a story which they were told to pass on to the next participant. They were then asked to pass it on to the next participant, and so on. The story was divided a priori into 30 specific details, meaning accuracy was scored on a scale from 0-30. Each diffusion chain included eight participants; who were either all autistic, all neurotypical, or alternating autistic and neurotypical. Participant interactions were filmed and participants rated rapport with their partners after the task.
Results: Data collection was completed in November 2018; at the time of submission 64 of 72 participants data has been scored for accuracy. Figure 1 illustrates these preliminary findings from three autistic (n=24), three alternating (n=24), and two neurotypical (n = 16) diffusion chains. Results indicate that accuracy in story details declines more slowly for both all-autistic and all-neurotypical chains. However, alternating chains show a steeper decline and lower final accuracy scores. Planned analyses on the complete dataset will explore the difference scores between pairs in each chain. In addition, we will report data on participant’s perception of rapport, and coded video capturing interactive behaviours between pairs.
Conclusions: Preliminary findings suggest that both autistic and neurotypical people benefit from having an interaction partner with the same diagnostic status, when performing an information transfer task. These findings will be interpreted in light of an emergent autism theory: the Double Empathy Problem.
Outcomes of Real-Time Social Interaction between Autistic Adults and Unfamiliar Autistic and non-Autistic Partners
You can see this as a poster, number 30111, on Thursday, May 2, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM, in room 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal), and here’s a link to the relevant online programme page.
Background: Autistic adults often experience poor social outcomes despite having a desire and motivation for social relationships. Recent work has highlighted relational factors contributing to poor social outcomes, as the characteristics of both the autistic person and those they interact with affect social experiences.
Objective: Most studies examining how autistic adults are perceived by others have been limited to self-report measures and use of videos and vignettes. The current study empirically assessed in real-time how autistic adults interact with both autistic and neurotypical (NT) social partners, and examined how these social experiences are perceived by each person.
Methods: 88 male adults (58 ASD) were assigned to one of three conversation dyads: 20 ASD-ASD, 18 ASD-NT, and 6 NT-NT. Each dyad completed a 5 minute unstructured social interaction in which they were tasked with getting to know each other. The three conversation dyads were similar on IQ as measured by the Wide Range Achievement Test (p=.80). After the interaction, participants completed the First Impression Scale rating their conversation partner on six traits (e.g., awkwardness) and four behavioral intentions (e.g., comfort living near). They also completed a previously-published social interaction measure, rating the conversation on quality, and a standard measure of how “close” they felt to their partner.
Results: The Actor Partner Interdependence Model (APIM) was applied to detect the effect of diagnosis on social outcomes, yielding actor effects (e.g., effect of one partner’s diagnosis on his own outcomes), partner effects (e.g., effect of the partner’s diagnosis on the other partner’s outcomes), and interaction effects (e.g., the effect of one partner’s diagnosis on their own outcome depending on their partner’s diagnosis).
Relative to NT adults, autistic adults reported feeling closer to both their autistic and their NT partners, (b=0.27, p<.001). Autistic and NT adults alike rated autistic partners as more awkward (b=-0.29, p = .001) and less attractive (b=-0.21, p = .021) than NT partners. Autistic adults were also more willing to live near their partners (b=0.18, p = .01), and a significant interaction (b=.24, p =.02) revealed autistic adults were more willing to live near autistic compared to NT partners (b=.27, p=.02). Autistic adults were more willing than NT adults to hang out with their autistic and NT partners (b=.18, p = .01). Finally, NT adults rated being more engaged in the conversation compared to autistic adults (b=-0.28, p = .049). No other effects (ps>.11) were significant, though data collection is ongoing.
Conclusion: Preliminary results suggest autistic adults are socially motivated to engage with their conversation partners. They express feeling closer to their partners and report greater interest in future interaction than NT adults. Consistent with past studies (Sasson et al., 2017), autistic adults were rated as more awkward and less attractive than NT adults, suggesting these perceptions extend to real-time interactions. However, in contrast to prior work autistic adults were not rated less favorably on other first impression items, suggesting that autistic adults may be evaluated more favorably within extended real-world interactions than on “thin slice” information.
The effects of disclosing a diagnosis of autism on social perception and behaviour in a collaborative game task
You can see this as a talk, number 30113, on Friday, May 3, 2019: 3:06 PM, in room 518 (Palais des congres de Montreal), and here’s a link to the relevant online programme page.
Background: A constituent part of the social difficulties that autistic people experience is a lack of understanding about autism. This shapes the way non-autistic people perceive and extend social opportunities towards autistic people. Research on how autistic people are perceived by neurotypical people indicates that disclosing a diagnosis leads to a broadly positive discriminatory bias, but autistic testimonies indicate that diagnostic disclosure often results in negative discriminatory behaviour. This perception-behaviour gap is methodologically challenging to study because interactions are idiosyncratic and autism encompasses a broad range of behaviours. To address these challenges, the present study simulated interactions in an online game, where participants were led to believe they were collaborating with another human when in truth their partner was an intelligent virtual agent (hereafter, “Agent”) that performed the same across all conditions.
Objective: To determine the effect of diagnostic disclosure, on in-game behaviour and post-game self-report, in order to probe the perception-behaviour gap in diagnostic disclosure of autism.
Methods: We led participants (n = 256) to believe that they were interacting online with a real person, while playing Dyad3D, a maze navigation game where players must work together to open doors and complete the levels. The diagnostic status of the other player for participants was manipulated, with participants randomly assigned to one of three conditions: a no disclosure condition, without diagnostic information; a dyslexia disclosure condition; and an autism disclosure condition. However, in all conditions participants were actually playing with an Agent programmed to behave exactly the same way across all interactions. A post-game questionnaire recorded participants’ self-reported perceptions of the interaction, including levels of coordination and helpfulness. Behavioural measures of participant activity in the game were also recorded, such as the mean distance from the Agent (coordination), and frequency of opening doors in the maze for the Agent (helpfulness).
Results: Our findings show that Dyad3D proved to be an efficient and viable method for creating a believable interaction (deception success rate >96%). Diagnostic disclosure of autism resulted in the Agent being perceived as more intelligent and useful, compared with either the no-diagnosis (p< .001) or dyslexia condition (p= .028). However, a comparison of self-reported helpfulness with in-game metrics showed no significant association between perception of helpfulness towards the Agent and actual helping behaviour towards the Agent (p= .667).
Conclusions: The findings suggest a “helping-bias”, whereby individuals who receive knowledge of another person’s diagnosis of autism over-estimate their own helpfulness towards the diagnosed individual. This finding highlights a risk that if autistic people claim they are not being helped adequately by non-autistic others, non-autistic others would not see such claims as having legitimacy.
We really hope you enjoyed reading about our research and, if you attended INSAR2019 we hope you might have managed to speak to the brilliant people who produced these lovely findings.
We’ll add links here to anything else we collect that is relevant to this work.