Personification in Autism: This Abstract Will be Very Sad If You Don’t Read It.
In online forums, autistic individuals describe a special relationship with objects. They report, for example, that papers in a filing cabinet feel unloved, or that the last crisp in a packet is lonely. Given that approximately half of all autistic individuals experience alexithymia (Bird & Cook, 2013), a condition characterised by difficulties identifying one’s own emotions, the suggestion that object personification may be a feature of autism seems almost paradoxical. Why would a person experience sympathy for objects, when they struggle to understand and verbalise the emotions of other people as well as their own?
This study investigated whether descriptions of object personification seen in online forums were representative of a large subset of the autistic population. Furthermore, it sought to understand and compare the experiences of autistic and non-autistic personifiers.
An online survey was used to assess autistic traits (Autism Quotient, Allison, Auyeung, & Baron-Cohen, 2012) and tendency for personification (Anthropomorphism Questionnaire, Neave, Jackson, Saxton, & Honekopp, 2015, with a bespoke questionnaire designed for the current study). Follow-up interviews were carried out with a subset of respondents – eight autistic and eight non-autistic adults – who reported high levels of personification. Participants were asked about their experiences of personification, both positive and negative.
350 adults completed the survey, 87 with a professional diagnosis of autism and 263 who reported being non-autistic. There were significantly more personifiers in the autistic group (56%) than in the non-autistic group (33%, χ2 = 12.9, p < .001). Autistic personifiers reported experiencing the phenomenon more often (31% reporting daily personification) than non-autistic personifiers (16% daily, χ2 = 4.73, p = .03). Overall scores for the Anthropomorphism Questionnaire were higher in the autistic group (t(312) = 2.34, p = .02) and the pattern across the two subscales revealed group differences. On the Childhood Subscale the average scores were very similar (t(312) = .67, p = .50) however the autistic group more strongly endorsed statements from the General Subscale (t(312) = 3.97, p < .001), suggesting that anthropomorphism more commonly persists into adulthood for autistic individuals than for those without the condition.
Interview data indicated that all participants felt that personification was an automatic process. Additionally, individuals from both groups described personifications as comforting, promoting a sense of safety and friendship with agents of personal significance, as well as experiencing concern and feelings of sympathy and empathy toward agents. For some, these feelings caused distress, and were considered intrusive. Autistic individuals stressed the important role personified agents played in their life, particularly when growing up, easing loneliness and helping with developing an understanding of emotions and relationships.
Together, our results indicate that object personification occurs commonly among autistic individuals, and perhaps more often (and later in life) than in the general population. However, the lived experiences of personifiers with and without autism seem similar. Given that in some cases, these experiences are negative, it is important to now consider the reasons for the increased personification, and identify structures for support.