Autistic People’s Perspectives on Stereotyping: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis.
Autistic stereotypes are on the most part negative, where autistic people are perceived as having a number of negative traits such as being: disruptive and distracting to others (White, Hillier, Fry & Makrez, 2016), unsocial, quiet and emotionless (Harnum, Duffy & Ferguson, 2007). The only exception to this is the autistic savant, where autistic people are seen as having superior abilities in specific domains (Draaisma, 2009; Conn & Bhugra, 2012; Tang & Bie, 2016; Anjay, Palanivel & Palanivel, 2011). However, there is a paucity of research that has looked at how autistic people think they are perceived by others, and no studies to date have asked autistic people what they think the autistic stereotypes are.
This study examined how autistic people felt they are perceived by others, including what the autistic stereotypes are from their perspectives and lived experiences.
A qualitative design was chosen, consisting of semi-structured interviews, and a set of pre-prepared questions that had been piloted beforehand with autistic people. 12 participants were interviewed and their responses were tape recorded (M=28 minutes) and then transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) (Smith, Flowers and Larkin, 2009), which involved coding each script for linguistic content, descriptive content and interpretation of possible meanings, resulting in a list of themes for each individual participant. A set of recurrent master themes was then identified across the whole data set. In order for a theme to be classed as recurrent, it needed to be present across at least half of participants. To ensure credibility of the analysis a subset of scripts were checked for accuracy and quality of interpretation by one of the co-authors.
Four master themes emerged from the analysis of the data. These were: (1) Autistic people are ‘weird’, (2) Negative effects/consequences of autistic stereotypes, (3) Heterogeneity of autistic people, (4) The effect of the environment / context. Most participants thought that autistic people may be perceived by others as being ‘weird’. Finding also demonstrated that being perceived in a negative way by others may lead to negative consequences for autistic people - such as bullying and exclusion. The diversity of people on the autistic spectrum was also emphasised by participants, especially in relation to the range of traits both stereotypic and counter-stereotypic (atypical) that autistic people can have. Finally participants highlighted how certain environments be both disabling and enabling for autistic people.
Participants in this study felt they were being perceived in a predominantly negative way and that this may have negative outcomes for autistic people. This finding is important as negative attitudes towards others can lead to negative behaviour, if left unchallenged. Moreover, this study highlights the diversity of autistic people and challenges stereotypes that autistic people are all the same. Finally this study highlights the importance of creating environments that do not limit or disable autistic people in any way.