Sea creature on the ocean floor that looks like a bright blue bundle of neurons.

Bias in Autism Research and The Neurotypical Advantage5 min read

There exists a lot of lit­er­a­ture on sub­con­scious and implicit pro­cessing in (assumed to be) neu­rotyp­ical people. However, this research rarely inter­sects with “autism research,” and the social and emo­tional research is rarely re-framed as the study of neu­rotyp­ical people, or “neu­rotyp­ical research.”

Autistic people are often told that they lack theory of mind and lack empathy. I’d like to show the ways in which neu­rotyp­ical people project their own emo­tions onto others, including autis­tics, and how this pro­jec­tion often­times skews neu­rotyp­ical people’s per­cep­tion of us, our inten­tions, and our feel­ings.

If the framing of “autism research” were flipped, this would likely be how autistic people– and the wider research/medical com­mu­nity– would see the neu­rotyp­ical neu­rotype.

Lacking Social Processing Awareness

Many neu­rotyp­ical people lack insight into their own sub­con­scious social processes, leaving autistic people to deci­pher neu­rotyp­ical cul­ture on their own, without proper sup­port or help.

Growing up, I have asked people many times about social con­ven­tions, about why some­thing has to be done, or why it has to be done a par­tic­ular way.Only once do I remember a gen­uine, true response to my ques­tion. When I had exhausted all answers from an exhausted neu­rotyp­ical parent, they finally said, “I don’t know, it’s just what people do.”

That stuck with me.

And hon­estly, it was one of the most helpful tips I had gotten as a child. It is impor­tant for autistic people to know that neu­rotyp­ical people often don’t know why they do some­thing. They just do it. Unlike the amount of time we spend trying to con­form, learn, and adhere to social expec­ta­tions, most neu­rotyp­ical people don’t think about it.

And that’s some­thing I had never thought about before as an autistic person– I had assumed everyone spent as much energy masking as I did. No one tells us that people’s brains are dif­ferent, and this lack of knowl­edge hurts neu­ro­di­ver­gent people much more than neu­rotyp­i­cals, to whom society often caters to the most.

Understanding neu­rotyp­ical behavior and the rea­sons behind it is impor­tant. It is impor­tant to see that just like autistic people, neu­rotyp­ical people have strengths and weak­nesses. They’re just not the same ones.

Neurotypical Weaknesses

Most people are taught early on that facial expres­sions are based on people expressing their emo­tions, but this is likely not the case. Researchers write, “Facial dis­plays are not about us, but about changing the behavior of those around us” [1]. So, if autistic people use fewer facial expres­sions, or use them less often/in a dif­ferent way, then we may be less likely to attempt to manip­u­late others in social inter­ac­tions.

Facial expres­sion inter­pre­ta­tion depends on how people con­cep­tu­alize emo­tions [2]. In a mouse-tracking exper­i­ment, the way the par­tic­i­pants thought about emo­tions con­cep­tu­ally (i.e. how close one emo­tion is to another) pre­dicted how the par­tic­i­pant per­ceived facial expres­sions [2].

Essentially, there wasn’t a “cor­rect” way to label a facial expres­sion. For example, if someone thought that sad­ness and anger were closely related, they would sub­con­sciously mouse over both emo­tions when seeing facial expres­sions that dis­played either sad­ness or anger.

Depending on how someone thinks about emo­tions, they may per­ceive the same facial expres­sion as dis­playing an emo­tion dif­fer­ently from someone else.  Further, allis­tics (specif­i­cally only women in this study) show dif­fi­culty empathizing with others after expe­ri­encing the oppo­site valence stim­ulus (reacting pos­i­tively or neg­a­tively to a pic­ture) as the other par­tic­i­pant [3].

The authors use the phrase “ego­cen­tricity bias,” which I find quite ironic, simply because autistic people are often told that they lack empathy and are ego­cen­tric. Here, the ego­cen­tricity bias is in “healthy” (i.e. likely not autistic) women.

Eye Contact is Not Honesty

In another example, eye con­tact in a com­pet­i­tive social deci­sion task was found to be linked with more com­pet­i­tive­ness rather than coop­er­a­tion [4]. Further, appar­ently you don’t even need to look at some­one’s eyes for them to think you are “making eye con­tact”! (I already knew this from per­sonal expe­ri­ence as an early autistic masker.)

An exper­i­menter, who either looked at the par­tic­i­pant’s mouth or eyes during a con­ver­sa­tion with par­tic­i­pants, later asked par­tic­i­pants if the exper­i­menter made eye con­tact.

Most par­tic­i­pants thought the exper­i­menter was looking at their eyes, even when the exper­i­menter only looked at their mouth for the entire con­ver­sa­tion [5].

Social Research vs. Autism Research

However, when put in the con­text of autism, inter­pre­ta­tion of research results are skewed by a pathol­o­gizing lens. Researchers in a study with almost all men, both autistic and neu­rotyp­ical (3 out of 16 were autistic women), inves­ti­gated neu­rotyp­ical inter­pre­ta­tion of autistic facial expres­sions.

They found that neu­rotyp­ical men could not read autistic men’s facial expres­sions well at all. However, instead of con­cluding that neu­rotyp­ical men are bad at reading autistic men’s facial expres­sions, they con­cluded that autistic people are not making “typ­ical emo­tional expres­sions” [6].

Rather than assume that we may simply use facial expres­sions dif­fer­ently than neu­rotyp­ical people, which neu­rotyp­ical people fail to pick up on, nat­ural autistic facial expres­sions are blamed, and the onus con­tinues to be put on autis­tics to make neu­rotyp­i­cals under­stand our com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

I don’t under­stand how so much of this research on “healthy par­tic­i­pants” (neu­rotyp­ical or allistic people) gets over­looked in autism research and in the expe­ri­ences of autistic people.

The idea that the “default” neu­rotype has no weak­nesses is a very flawed one, but is often a common assump­tion when it comes to autism research. Only when both neu­rotyp­ical and autistic strengths and weak­nesses are taken into account will we see change in how neu­rotyp­ical people interact with us.

Oftentimes neu­rotyp­ical pro­cessing is a pre­sumed strength, while autistic pro­cessing is an assumed weak­ness. But it’s a lot less black-and-white than that, neu­rotyp­ical people…

The more we under­stand neu­rotyp­ical pro­cessing, the more we can show that autistic pro­cessing isn’t the wrong way. It’s just a dif­ferent one.

References

  1. Crivelli, C., & Fridlund, A., J. (2018). Facial Displays Are Tools for Social Influence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22: 388–399.
  2. Brooks, J.A., & Freeman, J. B. (2018). Conceptual knowl­edge pre­dicts the rep­re­sen­ta­tional struc­ture of facial emo­tion per­cep­tion. Nature Human Behavior, 2: 581–591.
  3. Silani, G., Ruff, C. C., & Singer, T. (2013). Right Supramarginal Gyrus Is Crucial to Overcome Emotional Egocentricity Bias in Social Judgments. Journal of Neuroscience, 33: 15466–15476.
  4. Giacomantonio, M., Jordan, J, Federico, F., van den Assem, M. J., van Dolder, D. (2018). The evil eye: Eye gaze and com­pet­i­tive­ness in social deci­sion making. European Journal of Social Psychology, 48: 388–396.
  5. Rogers, S., Guidetti, O., Speelman, C. P. (2019). Contact Is in the Eye of the Beholder: The Eye Contact Illusion. Perception, 48: 248–252.
  6. Brewer, R., Biotti, F., Catmur, C., Press, C., Happe, F., Cook, R., & Bird, G. (2015). Can Neurotypical Individuals Read Autistic Facial Expressions? Atypical Production of Emotional Facial Expressions in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Autism Research, 9: 262–271.

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4 Comments

  1. On top of every­thing else, there’s an assump­tion that facial expres­sions are uni­versal: that all allistic people, at least, use the same facial expres­sions for the same emo­tions, regard­less of dif­fer­ences in cul­ture. (In some cul­tures, a head­shake indi­cates “yes” rather than “no.” I wonder what the people who con­duct these tests “proving” that autistic indi­vid­uals are ‘expressing wrongly or not at all’ would make of someone from that cul­ture.)

    What really annoys me is that allis­tics aren’t as good at reading EACH OTHER as they think they are. (So many plots in fic­tion involving some form of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion… They know they some­times mis­com­mu­niate with each other… but they won’t admit it or even see it when they’re hell­bent on proving us “flawed” because they mis­com­mu­ni­cate with us.) I read some­where that most allis­tics fail that “guess the emo­tion from a pic­ture of the eyes” test, too. That means the test doesn’t show what they claim it shows, because it doesn’t do what they claim it does.

    WE, at least, are usu­ally aware that mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion can happen, because it hap­pens to us all the time (and we’re usu­ally blamed for it — it’s never the allistic person who didn’t express them­self clearly). A problem can’t ever be dealt with unless it’s rec­og­nized as existing, and that may give us an advan­tage, because we’re not prone to auto­mat­i­cally ASSUMING that we both under­stand and are under­stood.

    1. Author

      Yes I def­i­nitely agree about allis­tics reading each other. I actu­ally had another research article in mind for this post but it was too hard to find. Previously I think there was some research showing that when allis­tics think they know what emo­tion someone is expe­ri­encing (another allistic person), they’re often­times wrong. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find the research article that talked about this. And yes I totally agree, we have a lot more expe­ri­ence in mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion often­times than allistic people do, or are at least more aware of it, pos­sibly because again, the onus is put on autistic people to change 100% to “com­mu­ni­cate effec­tively” to allis­tics. I do cringe some­times when I see the words “com­mu­ni­ca­tion deficits” because most of the time it is simply non-autistic people not under­standing what autistic com­mu­ni­ca­tion looks like.

  2. the soci­etal poison of Positive Psychology per­vades every detail of American life. It is not hap­pen­stance, it is by design.
    Autistics are meant to be “socially engi­neered” into proper com­pli­ance:
    Integrate, or be Disintegrated.

  3. This describes exactly what I’ve been expe­ri­encing those 18 years as a “passing” autistic woman (well, girl for most of it).
    People didn’t under­stand me, mis­in­ter­preted every­thing and held on to their beliefs like they’d drown if they didn’t ignore my cor­rec­tions (“You think really highly of your­self even though you’ve told me oth­er­wise!” “You are crying and saying you don’t want to con­tinue dri­ving but I obvi­ously know that that person speaking/arguing with me couldn’t have upset you and that really you want to con­tinue dri­ving prac­tice”), it’s like their way of seeing the world is the only right one, like even that of some other NT person with other views couldn’t pos­sibly have any merit, nev­er­mind us because we’re clearly not human.
    They seemed to con­stantly sort things into “right” and “wrong” and did stupid things in the name of god-knows-what…it was/is simply infu­ri­ating.

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