Perceptions, Meta-perceptions, and Cognitive Estimations of Autistic Adults Across Personal and Professional Contexts




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Autistic adults experience social disability that contributes to poor outcomes, including underemployment, loneliness, and reduced quality of life. Most research examining mechanisms of social disability in autism have focused on autistic differences in thinking and behavior, but more recent work is highlighting how inhospitable environments, social exclusion, and misperceptions of autistic people contribute to the disability experienced by autistic people. Previous work on impressions of autistic people has shown that they are evaluated less favorably than non-autistic (NA) controls, with NA raters expressing lower social interest in autistic relative to NA people. However, these studies have been limited by using a single set of stimulus participants within a single artificial scenario that has little relevance to the real-world experiences of autistic adults. The purpose of the current study was to comprehensively examine how autistic adults are perceived by non-autistic (NA) adults across personal and professional contexts, examine if autistic participants accurately predict these perceptions, and assess whether NA evaluations of autistic people extend to underestimations of their cognitive abilities. 977 NA rater participants provided first impressions of 42 video-recorded stimulus participants (21 NA and 21 autistic) in one of six different contexts (reality TV show, job interview, dating, finding a partner for a class project, making a friend, and discussing an interest) and completed measures assessing their level of autism knowledge and autism stigma. First impression results largely replicated previous findings, with NA raters evaluating autistic participants unfavorably and expressing lower social interest in them. Disclosing the autistic participants’ diagnosis and having raters with higher autism knowledge and lower stigma somewhat mitigated these findings. Self-reported “social camouflaging” behaviors by autistic participants, however, largely did not affect impressions. Patterns varied across contexts, with autistic participants being rated most negatively in the job interview and dating contexts and most positively when talking about their interests. These context effects occurred despite objective coding indicating little variability in the social behavior of autistic participants across various personal and professional contexts, suggesting that NA adults perceive autistic social and communicative behaviors as less appealing or appropriate in some contexts (e.g., job interview) than others. Further, NA but not autistic participants tended to “self-enhance” by overestimating how they would be rated by observers, and NA raters underestimated the cognitive performance of autistic adults, particularly their social cognitive ability. This finding suggests that negative evaluations of autistic adults extend beyond subjective first impression judgments to include misperceptions of autistic peoples’ objective abilities. Collectively, results indicate that NA observers tend to perceive autistic adults less positively than NA adults, but these perceptions are modulated by many factors, including situational context, diagnostic disclosure, and the autism knowledge and stigma of the rater. Over time, the processes reported here may construct barriers to inclusion for autistic people that contribute to their difficulty achieving personal and professional goals within predominantly NA environments.



Psychology, Behavioral, Psychology, Social