How Social Others Form First Impressions of Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders



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Previous research examining social impairments in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has almost exclusively focused on identifying and remediating the cognitive and neurological differences contributing to social deficits. However, social interaction by definition includes more than one person, and little consideration has been given to how the perspectives and behaviors of others affect the social experiences of individuals with ASD. First impressions are rapidly formed and exert robust and long-term effects on social interactions, but have only been sparsely investigated in ASD, and not at all in adults with the disorder. Here, first impressions were made by typically developing (TD) adult observers (N=214) while viewing “thin slices” of real-world social presentations of ASD (N=20) and TD (N=20) adult models matched on age, gender, and IQ. Observers rated their first impressions of character traits of the models and their intentions to subsequently interact with them from isolated information channels of social presentation (e.g., visual cues, audio cues, and speech content). Using both univariate and multivariate analyses, we found that ASD models were consistently judged less favorably than TD models, with awkwardness and attractiveness making the largest contribution, but no group differences were found for intelligence and trustworthiness. Negative impressions of those with ASD were largely associated with reduced intentions for social interactions. However, impressions of those with ASD did not differ from controls when evaluating their conversation content in the absence of audio-visual cues, suggesting that style not substance drives less favorable impression formation. These findings indicate that social interaction impairments in ASD may not only be an individual impairment, but a relational one in which the viewpoints of others affect the quantity and quality of social experiences for those with ASD. This perspective has strong implications for the conceptualization and treatment of ASD, and may reflect a previously under-appreciated barrier to social interaction for those on the autism spectrum.



Autism, Adulthood, First impression (Psychology), Social intelligence