Can Neurotypical Adults Identify Autism Based on Brief Samples of Behaviour?
In recent years, considerable resources have been spent on raising public awareness of autism. Autism awareness within the general population is frequently tested using questionnaires, where knowledge and understanding of autism is assessed by self-report. Recent studies have suggested that the general public has relatively good understanding of the features of autism (Dillenberger et al., 2013; Stewart et al., 2008). However, it is not known whether people bring such knowledge to bear when they encounter people with autism in everyday circumstances.
This study aimed to determine whether neurotypical adults could identify who does or does not have an autism diagnosis based on brief samples of behaviour. The study also aimed to determine the relationship between people’s ability to recognise autism, their knowledge of autism features, and the amount of contact thay have had with autistic individuals.
Neurotypical adults (perceivers) watched videoclips of 20 male autistic adolescents and adults and 20 male neurotypical comparison individuals (targets), created by Sheppard et al. (2016). Each muted video showed the target’s reaction to one of four events enacted by the researcher. Targets were either told a joke, paid several compliments, told about the researcher’s unfortunate day, or kept waiting while the researcher carried out irrelevant activities.
Perceivers were told which event the target had experienced prior to each video and were asked to indicate whether or not they believed the target was autistic. They were then asked to verbally state the reason for their choice. Perceivers also completed questionnaires that tested their understanding of core features of autism and asked about the amount of contact they had had with autistic individuals.
Overall, perceivers were able to judge whether or not targets were autistic at above chance levels. However, further analysis revealed that for the waiting scenario performance was not above chance. Perceivers’ ability to jduge whether or not targets were autistic correlated with the amount of contact they reported having had with autistic individuals, but not with knowledge of autism features. Perceivers’ most frequently stated reasons for their choices included aspects of facial expression, references to eye movements or eye contact, comments on rapport with the (off camera) experimenter, and whether the reaction was ‘normal’ for the context.
Neurotypical individuals are capable of judging who does or does not have an autism diagnosis based on very brief samples of behaviour. They were above chance for three of the four scenarios included in the study, suggesting that differences between those with and without autism may be more apparent in some situations than others. Along with studies that have used more implicit measures (Sasson et al., 2017; Sheppard et al., 2016), these results suggest that autistic people can be perceived differently from neurotypical individuals based on just a few seconds of their behaviour. More prior experience of autism was associated with better task performance, suggesting that neurotypical individuals can develop expertise in recognising autism through exposure, in the absence of explicit diagnostic training.