Sea creature on the ocean floor that looks like a bright blue bundle of neurons.

Bias in Autism Research and The Neurotypical Advantage5 min read

There exists a lot of literature on subconscious and implicit processing in (assumed to be) neurotypical people.  However, this research rarely intersects with “autism research,” and the social and emotional research is rarely re-framed as the study of neurotypical people, or “neurotypical research.”

Autistic people are often told that they lack theory of mind and lack empathy.  I’d like to show the ways in which neurotypical people project their own emotions onto others, including autistics, and how this projection oftentimes skews neurotypical people’s perception of us, our intentions, and our feelings.

If the framing of “autism research” were flipped, this would likely be how autistic people– and the wider research/medical community– would see the neurotypical neurotype.

Lacking Social Processing Awareness

Many neurotypical people lack insight into their own subconscious social processes, leaving autistic people to decipher neurotypical culture on their own, without proper support or help.

Growing up, I have asked people many times about social conventions, about why something has to be done, or why it has to be done a particular way.Only once do I remember a genuine, true response to my question.  When I had exhausted all answers from an exhausted neurotypical parent, they finally said, “I don’t know, it’s just what people do.”

That stuck with me.

And honestly, it was one of the most helpful tips I had gotten as a child.  It is important for autistic people to know that neurotypical people often don’t know why they do something.  They just do it.  Unlike the amount of time we spend trying to conform, learn, and adhere to social expectations, most neurotypical people don’t think about it.

And that’s something I had never thought about before as an autistic person– I had assumed everyone spent as much energy masking as I did.  No one tells us that people’s brains are different, and this lack of knowledge hurts neurodivergent people much more than neurotypicals, to whom society often caters to the most.

Understanding neurotypical behavior and the reasons behind it is important.  It is important to see that just like autistic people, neurotypical people have strengths and weaknesses.  They’re just not the same ones. 

Neurotypical Weaknesses

Most people are taught early on that facial expressions are based on people expressing their emotions, but this is likely not the case.  Researchers write, “Facial displays are not about us, but about changing the behavior of those around us” [1].  So, if autistic people use fewer facial expressions, or use them less often/in a different way, then we may be less likely to attempt to manipulate others in social interactions.

Facial expression interpretation depends on how people conceptualize emotions [2].  In a mouse-tracking experiment, the way the participants thought about emotions conceptually (i.e.  how close one emotion is to another) predicted how the participant perceived facial expressions [2].

Essentially, there wasn’t a “correct” way to label a facial expression.  For example, if someone thought that sadness and anger were closely related, they would subconsciously mouse over both emotions when seeing facial expressions that displayed either sadness or anger.

Depending on how someone thinks about emotions, they may perceive the same facial expression as displaying an emotion differently from someone else.  Further, allistics (specifically only women in this study) show difficulty empathizing with others after experiencing the opposite valence stimulus (reacting positively or negatively to a picture) as the other participant [3].

The authors use the phrase “egocentricity bias,” which I find quite ironic, simply because autistic people are often told that they lack empathy and are egocentric.  Here, the egocentricity bias is in “healthy” (i.e.  likely not autistic) women.

Eye Contact is Not Honesty

In another example, eye contact in a competitive social decision task was found to be linked with more competitiveness rather than cooperation [4].  Further, apparently you don’t even need to look at someone’s eyes for them to think you are “making eye contact”!  (I already knew this from personal experience as an early autistic masker.)

An experimenter, who either looked at the participant’s mouth or eyes during a conversation with participants, later asked participants if the experimenter made eye contact.

Most participants thought the experimenter was looking at their eyes, even when the experimenter only looked at their mouth for the entire conversation [5].

Social Research vs.  Autism Research

However, when put in the context of autism, interpretation of research results are skewed by a pathologizing lens.  Researchers in a study with almost all men, both autistic and neurotypical (3 out of 16 were autistic women), investigated neurotypical interpretation of autistic facial expressions.

They found that neurotypical men could not read autistic men’s facial expressions well at all.  However, instead of concluding that neurotypical men are bad at reading autistic men’s facial expressions, they concluded that autistic people are not making “typical emotional expressions” [6].

Rather than assume that we may simply use facial expressions differently than neurotypical people, which neurotypical people fail to pick up on, natural autistic facial expressions are blamed, and the onus continues to be put on autistics to make neurotypicals understand our communication.

I don’t understand how so much of this research on “healthy participants” (neurotypical or allistic people) gets overlooked in autism research and in the experiences of autistic people.

The idea that the “default” neurotype has no weaknesses is a very flawed one, but is often a common assumption when it comes to autism research.  Only when both neurotypical and autistic strengths and weaknesses are taken into account will we see change in how neurotypical people interact with us.

Oftentimes neurotypical processing is a presumed strength, while autistic processing is an assumed weakness.  But it’s a lot less black-and-white than that, neurotypical people…

The more we understand neurotypical processing, the more we can show that autistic processing isn’t the wrong way.  It’s just a different one.

References

  1. Crivelli, C., & Fridlund, A., J.  (2018).  Facial Displays Are Tools for Social Influence.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22: 388-399.
  2. Brooks, J.A., & Freeman, J.  B.  (2018).  Conceptual knowledge predicts the representational structure of facial emotion perception.  Nature Human Behavior, 2: 581-591.
  3. Silani, G., Ruff, C.  C., & Singer, T.  (2013).  Right Supramarginal Gyrus Is Crucial to Overcome Emotional Egocentricity Bias in Social Judgments.  Journal of Neuroscience, 33: 15466-15476.
  4. Giacomantonio, M., Jordan, J, Federico, F., van den Assem, M.  J., van Dolder, D.  (2018).  The evil eye: Eye gaze and competitiveness in social decision making.  European Journal of Social Psychology, 48: 388-396.
  5. Rogers, S., Guidetti, O., Speelman, C.  P.  (2019).  Contact Is in the Eye of the Beholder: The Eye Contact Illusion.  Perception, 48: 248-252.
  6. Brewer, R., Biotti, F., Catmur, C., Press, C., Happe, F., Cook, R., & Bird, G.  (2015).  Can Neurotypical Individuals Read Autistic Facial Expressions?  Atypical Production of Emotional Facial Expressions in Autism Spectrum Disorders.  Autism Research, 9: 262-271.

AutisticScienceLady

AutisticScienceLady is a neuroscience graduate student who is a late-diagnosed autistic person, and self-advocate.

Her blog can be found here: http://www.autisticsciencelady.wordpress.com

Latest posts by AutisticScienceLady (see all)

4 Comments

  1. On top of everything else, there’s an assumption that facial expressions are universal: that all allistic people, at least, use the same facial expressions for the same emotions, regardless of differences in culture.  (In some cultures, a headshake indicates “yes” rather than “no.”  I wonder what the people who conduct these tests “proving” that autistic individuals are ‘expressing wrongly or not at all’ would make of someone from that culture.)

    What really annoys me is that allistics aren’t as good at reading EACH OTHER as they think they are.  (So many plots in fiction involving some form of miscommunication…  They know they sometimes miscommuniate with each other…  but they won’t admit it or even see it when they’re hellbent on proving us “flawed” because they miscommunicate with us.) I read somewhere that most allistics fail that “guess the emotion from a picture of the eyes” test, too.  That means the test doesn’t show what they claim it shows, because it doesn’t do what they claim it does.

    WE, at least, are usually aware that miscommunication can happen, because it happens to us all the time (and we’re usually blamed for it — it’s never the allistic person who didn’t express themself clearly).  A problem can’t ever be dealt with unless it’s recognized as existing, and that may give us an advantage, because we’re not prone to automatically ASSUMING that we both understand and are understood.

    1. Author

      Yes I definitely agree about allistics reading each other.  I actually had another research article in mind for this post but it was too hard to find.  Previously I think there was some research showing that when allistics think they know what emotion someone is experiencing (another allistic person), they’re oftentimes wrong.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find the research article that talked about this.  And yes I totally agree, we have a lot more experience in miscommunication oftentimes than allistic people do, or are at least more aware of it, possibly because again, the onus is put on autistic people to change 100% to “communicate effectively” to allistics.  I do cringe sometimes when I see the words “communication deficits” because most of the time it is simply non-autistic people not understanding what autistic communication looks like.

  2. the societal poison of Positive Psychology pervades every detail of American life.  It is not happenstance, it is by design. 
    Autistics are meant to be “socially engineered” into proper compliance:
    Integrate, or be Disintegrated.

  3. This describes exactly what I’ve been experiencing those 18 years as a “passing” autistic woman (well, girl for most of it). 
    People didn’t understand me, misinterpreted everything and held on to their beliefs like they’d drown if they didn’t ignore my corrections (“You think really highly of yourself even though you’ve told me otherwise!”  “You are crying and saying you don’t want to continue driving but I obviously know that that person speaking/arguing with me couldn’t have upset you and that really you want to continue driving practice”), it’s like their way of seeing the world is the only right one, like even that of some other NT person with other views couldn’t possibly have any merit, nevermind us because we’re clearly not human.
    They seemed to constantly sort things into “right” and “wrong” and did stupid things in the name of god-knows-what…it was/is simply infuriating.

Talk to us... what are you thinking?