PLOSBLOGS Editor’s Note: From time to time we feature “first person” blog posts by PLOS journal authors, particularly when their newly published findings provide insights of interest beyond the research discipline they work in, and offer information of potential value to other PLOSBLOGS readers, including clinicians, policymakers, science writers and, in this case, autistic people. [Featured image above: “The Outsider” by Donna Williams CCBY ]
A guest post by Morton Ann Gernsbacher, PhD.
A well-worn adage reminds us that “context is everything.” And for decades psychologists have known that context matters when assessing people’s personality traits. For example, if people are asked on a personality questionnaire if they like to be alone, they’ll respond differently if they think the context for being alone is while they’re working versus while they’re socializing. If people are asked if they have difficulty speaking in front of a group, they’ll respond differently depending on what size group is specified.
In a recent experiment published in PLoS ONE, my collaborators, Jennifer Stevenson and Sebastian Dern, and I demonstrated that context also matters when assessing autistic traits.* Previously, we’d noticed that questionnaires that assess autistic traits often lack context. For example, on one questionnaire, respondents are asked whether they like being around other people, whether they enjoy chatting with people, whether people have to talk them into trying new things, and the like.
But for none of these items is the type of people contextualized. Are they similar to or different from the person being assessed? For example, are the other people the respondent likes to be around other autistic people or other non-autistic people? We know that being around people who are similar to oneself usually makes it easier to socialize, communicate, and be considered more ‘normal.’ We predicted that would also be the case for autistic and non-autistic persons.
Therefore, in our experiment, we manipulated the context of the items on an autistic traits questionnaire (the Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaire). Rather than presenting each item in its original, un-contextualized form (e.g., “I like being around other people”) we presented each item contextualized as “with autistic people” (e.g., “I like being around other autistic people”) or “with non-autistic people” (e.g., “I like being around other non-autistic people”). We collected data from 124 autistic and 124 non-autistic adult participants who were matched for their age, sex, gender, and parental education.
We predicted, and we found, that autistic participants report having fewer autistic traits (i.e., less difficulty interacting and communicating) when the items are contextualized as “with autistic persons” than when the items are contextualized as “with non-autistic persons.” For non-autistic participants, we predicted and we found just the opposite: They report having more autistic traits (i.e., more difficulty interacting and communicating) when the items are contextualized as “with autistic persons” than when the items are contextualized as “with non-autistic persons” (leading to a statistically significant interaction, F(1,244)=267.5, p<.001, h2p=.523). Thus, our experiment demonstrates the importance of context when assessing autistic traits.
Reference Group Also Matters
For decades psychologists have also known that, in addition to context, reference group matters when assessing personality traits. In fact, some psychologists argue that we can only appraise our own personality and behavior in the context of a reference group.
For example, men rate themselves as more caring when they rate themselves according to other men than when they rate themselves according to women. Women rate themselves as less caring when they rate themselves according to other women rather than according to men. Canadians rate themselves as less direct in their conversations if the reference group is other Canadians rather than Japanese, and for Japanese it’s the opposite.
However, just like they lack context, most items on autistic trait questionnaires also lack reference groups. For example, on one questionnaire, respondents are asked whether they behave in ways that seem strange or bizarre and whether they’re regarded by others as odd or weird. But according to whom? Who should the respondents consider when they assess whether they’re regarded as odd or weird? Autistic people or non-autistic people? And does it make a difference? Our second experiment answered these questions.
We manipulated the reference group of the items on another autistic traits questionnaire (the Social Responsiveness Scale). We presented each item with an “according to autistic people” reference group, an “according to non-autistic people” reference group, or a self-reference group, “I think.” We collected data from 82 autistic and 82 non-autistic adult participants who were matched for their age, sex, gender, and parental education.
We predicted, and we found, that autistic participants report having fewer autistic traits when the reference group is other autistic people (e.g., “According to autistic people, I behave in ways that seem strange or bizarre”). Autistic participants report having more autistic traits when the reference group is non-autistic people (e.g., “According to non-autistic people, I behave in ways that seem strange or bizarre”), and autistic participants report having a medium amount of autistic traits when the reference group is themselves (“I think that I behave in ways that seem strange or bizarre”).
But non-autistic participants seem impervious to reference group. They report having the same degree of autistic traits regardless of the reference group (leading to a statistically significant interaction, F(2,160)=94.38, p<.001, h2p=.541, although not the interaction we predicted). One explanation is that the particular autistic trait questionnaire we used in this study (the Social Responsiveness Scale), although frequently administered to non-autistic persons, is couched in such severe phrasing that non-autistic persons’ responses are too bound to the floor to show any effects of our manipulation.
What are the practical applications of our study? Our data demonstrate that both autistic and non-autistic people’s degree of autistic traits — their difficulty interacting and communicating with other people — are contextually specific. Both groups can more easily interact and communicate with people more like themselves than people less like themselves.
Although this finding is consistent with other social psychological research, it was important for us to demonstrate in the domain of autistic traits. Context matters not only for accurately assessing autistic traits but also for designing environments that enable autistic persons to optimally interact and communicate.
*We purposely use identity-first terms (e.g., “autistic traits” and “autistic participants”) rather than person-first terms (“autism-related traits” and “participants with autism”) because identify-first language is recommended by psychologists, preferred by autistic people, and less prone to stigma.
Dr. Gernsbacher is the Vilas Research and Sir Frederic Bartlett Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her laboratory explores cognitive neuroscience, human communication, and attention.