If a person is staring at you, their eyebrows drawn tightly, their head tilted forward, leaning towards you, their jaw tight, their mouth a straight line, you might assume they’re angry with you. You might feel threatened.
If you learn the person is severely visually impaired–legally blind– you realize they’re just trying to focus and process the limited or inadequate visual input they receive to understand what they’re seeing. Their facial expression is not communication to you. They’re likely not even aware of their face at all because they’re spending so much energy processing.
In the image below, the person’s face can be described the same way: tight eyebrows, face leaning forward, tight mouth, jaw set. But here, there’s a visual cue (glasses pulled up) and the person is looking at something else.
Perception and Intent
I am known for performing a lot of spontaneous social experiments, and today was another of those. I sent a series of four images to many people, autistic and non-autistic (and some who aren’t sure which they are), and asked them to just give me their impression.
I didn’t want people to think I was asking them to comment on race or gender biases, so I originally sent a pair of images as a “control;” however, the reaction to those two images was interesting enough to note, as well. Here are the four images and the reactions from autistic and non-autistic people to those images.
Note: gender of individuals was named in the image descriptions from the site where I purchase stock images. “Neurotypical” means that someone is not neurodivergent (autistic, ADHD, Tourette’s, etc.); however, in this article, the word “neurotypical” is used as a synonym of “non-autistic.”
Both autistic and non-autistic people responded to this person with words that have a positive connotation: attractive, intelligent, business woman, focused, well-dressed, classy, professional.
Most people, autistic or not, remarked that the woman was thinking of something, concentrated, in deep thought, pensive.
Some autistic people made comments that were references to her sensory processing. For example, one autistic person said the woman was thinking, “It’s really bright out.”
Another autistic person was quite specific, responding that this woman was likely looking away from the visually-overstimulating city and focusing on the clouds, a bird, or trees to regulate her sensory experience.
A few people (women) said she looks like she’s contemplating revenge or “up to no good.”
This person received the most negative description from non-autistic people who used the following words and phrases used to describe him: creepy, alcoholic, ugly, psycho, rapey, pervert, loser, and stoner.
But, many autistic people had a very different impression, using the following descriptors: trying to listen and understand, hipster, creative, a bit silly, empathizing, kind, in awe of the beauty and art in something, sad but trying to look happy, distressed and intense, masking his feelings, and has seasonal allergies.
One autistic person described him as being on another plane of consciousness and unaware of his surroundings or what others were seeing. A few people said he was looking at something (beautiful, glorious) internally and not seeing what is in front of him.
Autistic and non-autistic people reacted very differently to this person, too. Most non-autistic people used words or phrases associated with anger: pissed off, infuriated, mad as hell, rage.
One autistic and one non-autistic person anticipated intent: about to kick somebody’s ass, ready to fight.
Very few autistic people estimated this person was angry. Almost all autistic people reacted the same way to this person, indicating that he was trying to process information or was confused. Words and phrases autistic people used: trying hard to understand something, confused, trying to process, listening hard, not sure what he’s looking at. One person remarked that he is probably visually impaired, one said he is maybe deaf and trying to read lips, and one said that he likely has auditory processing disorder.
Almost everyone, no matter their neurotype, expressed that this person was trying to understand what he was seeing. Many guessed he was looking at his phone (he was before I cropped the image). Some used words to estimate the emotion he was feeling: disbelief, shocked, annoyed, confused, irritated, irate, disgusted.
To that last point, two men estimated he just stepped in dog poo.
There were, however, some differences in the language used to describe Person 4.
Zero neurotypical people mentioned the glasses. Many– if not most— autistic people mentioned the glasses. Several asked where the lenses were.
Autistics also tended to use more clinical or specific language to express the same thing neurotypicals stated, describing the way that moving the glasses might aid the man in visual processing.
Oddly, only one person commented on this person’s level of attractiveness.
General Differences: Autistic v/s Non-Autistic
Many non-autistic people commented on the attractiveness of each individual, their clothing, or their hairstyles. They also made some conjecture about the person’s degree of career success (business woman, loser, unemployed).
Autistic people were equally as objective in their impressions of Person 1-4. If they described the emotional expression of person 1, they also did the same for the rest of the people. If they described race or gender presentation of one, they tended to do that for all.
Neurotypical people were mostly objective in their perceptions about Person 1 and Person 4; however, they demonstrated a lot of subjective interpretation of Person 2 and Person 3. While these impressions might be described by racial or gender biases, impressions about Person 1 (a Black woman) and person 4 (a white man) were neutral or positive.
This is conjecture, and obviously not a scientific experiment ready for peer review, but I believe the reason that non-autistic people were so subjective in their impressions of Person 2 and Person 3 is because those people were looking at the camera– eye contact– and they were perceived to be communicating something with their body language.
Lastly, many autistic people expressed that an expression could be interpreted various ways, and more information or context was needed before they could make a guess. Particularly, several autistic people thought that Person 2 was either listening intently or was gazing at something beautiful; also, several autistic people noted that they were unsure if Person 3 was frustrated, angry, or just focusing.
The Hot Take
All people project onto others based on their own personal experiences.
Person 2 is vulnerable to being assumed to be a sexual predator by neurotypicals. If he is dangerous, autistic people aren’t perceiving that– for what it’s worth, it baffles me that neurotypicals see something in his face that indicates anything related to sexual behavior. I just don’t get it.
I have had dangerous men objectify, attempt to assault, or actually assault me, and none of them looked like this person. Though, for those who said “creative” or “smokes weed,” I did think, “Yeah, that’s reasonable.” I don’t typically associate creativity and weed with rape, though.
If anyone wants to explain this one in the comments, I’d love to hear why people think this person is “creepy” or “rapey.”
Person 3 is vulnerable to being perceived as a violent threat. That’s what I predicted people would say before I started this experiment. I believe if people had the context that he was hearing- or vision-impaired, they’d immediately make the internal switch to thinking that he was similar to Person 4. He’s also vulnerable to racial biases.
Imagine how these perceptive differences impact the way autistic people are treated. Think of the consequence these biases might have in policing. In witness testimony. In human resources (HR) on the job– or even in a job interview. In who looks “suspicious” in a store, on the library steps, walking alone in a neighborhood.