In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the day-to-day challenges facing autistic people and their families. But people on the spectrum also have strengths in areas that NT people expect.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by the inability of individuals to gauge the emotions and mental states of other people. However, if the lens is widened to include the behavior of people in general, those with ASD traits are as good or even slightly better social psychologists than people who do not have traits of autism, Yale researchers report Sept. 9 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“People with ASD traits seem to be able to analyze how people in general will react in a social situation, even if they have difficulties judging the mental states of individuals,” said Anton Gollwitzer, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology.
Gollwitzer and senior author John Bargh analyzed results of an online quiz taken by 6595 respondents from 104 countries. In this quiz, participants attempted to predict how people in general will react in a social situation — what Gollwitzer calls “Social Psychological Skill.” The quiz included questions such as: Do people feel more responsible for their behavior in groups than as individuals? (No) Does catharsis work: If I am angry, will taking out my hostilities on a stuffed doll make me feel better?” (No) On average, do people work harder in groups or as individuals? (As individuals).
Surprisingly, those with ASD traits had slightly better scores on these questions than those without those traits. Gollwitzer said that the general nature of these questions likely allowed ASD individuals to view the situation analytically, without needing to assess emotional or mental states of individuals. This skill may help them compensate for their difficulties in reading others’ mental states in order to function in a social society.The article:
Anton Gollwitzer, Cameron Martel, James C. McPartland, and John A. Bargh, "Autism Spectrum Traits predict Higher Social Psychological Skill, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, first published September 9, 2019 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1911460116
Social-cognitive skills can take different forms, from accurately predicting individuals’ intentions, emotions, and thoughts (person perception or folk psychology) to accurately predicting social phenomena more generally. Past research has linked autism spectrum (AS) traits to person perception deficits in the general population. We tested whether AS traits also predict poor accuracy in terms of predicting generalized social phenomena, assessed via participants’ accuracy at predicting social psychological phenomena (e.g., social loafing, social projection, group think). We found the opposite. In a sample of ∼6,500 participants in 104 countries, AS traits predicted slightly higher social psychological skill. A second study with 400 participants suggested that heightened systemizing underlies this relationship. Our results indicate that AS traits relate positively to a form of social cognitive skill—predicting social psychological phenomena—and highlight the importance of distinguishing between divergent types of social cognition.
Our findings may also help explain why individuals with ASD exhibit adequate person perception performance in settings that allow for deliberation, reflection, and reasoning (e.g., extended time) (18). Individuals with ASD may be recruiting their knowledge of social psychological phenomena as a form of compensatory learning to understand other individuals’ mental states.