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A 25-Minute Training Can Help Reduce People's Autism Biases

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Key Takeaways

  • A study found that autism acceptance training that targets non-autistic people may play a role in improving social inclusion for autistic people.
  • Masking or camouflaging autistic traits can be harmful to autistic people, and has been associated with higher rates of suicidality.
  • Becoming an ally to the autistic community should also include addressing implicit and explicit bias that one may have about autism.

In a study of non-autistic adults, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas found that autism acceptance training may help mitigate explicit bias that non-autistic people have about people with autism.

Autism is a developmental disorder that produces a wide range of symptoms that can include repetitive self-stimulatory behavior, also known as stimming. Rather than teaching non-autistic people to challenge their biases and increase inclusivity for autism, traditionally, people with autism may be taught to hide their symptoms.

"It may seem obvious that improving autism knowledge leads to more inclusive attitudes toward autistic people, but this isn't standard practice in the field," the study's corresponding author Desiree R. Jones, MS, a PhD student at the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, tells Verywell. "The majority of interventions to improve autistic social experiences focus on asking autistic people to change who they are, just so others will accept them."

Jones found that in the University of Texas at Dallas' study, non-autistic people responded well to the training targeted at them. "Exposing people to examples of real autistic people, who have a range of abilities and support needs, can help to dismantle stereotypes about autism, which is what we found in our study," she says. The January study was published in the journal Autism.

Training May Help

For the study, the 238 non-autistic adult participants were separated into three different groups:

  • People who participated in the autism acceptance training video
  • People who participated in a more general mental health training
  • People who did not participate in any of the training

The study found that the non-autistic people who watched the autism acceptance training video showed more favorable attitudes towards autism. They were also less likely to believe misconceptions like autistic people are violent or do not desire friendships.

Jones says that the training used in the study was created at Simon Fraser University in Canada, in consultation with a group of autistic adults. "It contains a number of short videos of autistic people talking about their own experiences and challenges," she says.

"People who did the autism acceptance training were also more interested in interacting with autistic people," Jones says. "They were more open to romantic relationships with autistic people, and they expressed a greater interest in interacting with autistic people who they watched in videos."

While the autism acceptance training in the study could address misconceptions stemming from explicit bias about autistic people, it may not be enough to address the implicit bias that non-autistic adults may have about autistic people. Jones said that "the people in our study associated autism with undesirable personal traits, such as neediness and weirdness."

"Research has found that implicit biases can be difficult to change, and may require longer or more extensive training to change," she says. "Our training was only 25 minutes long, so we believe that future studies should investigate whether multiple training sessions would have a greater impact on implicit biases about autism."

The Pressure for and Harm of Masking

Masking for autistic people is the act of suppressing autistic traits and urges in order to camouflage with non-autistic people, which can be very harmful to members of the autism community. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that masking autistic traits is associated with an increased risk of experiencing thwarted belongingness and lifetime suicidality.

"Because of this, it is essential that non-autistic people do their part by being more accepting of autistic differences and creating more inclusive spaces for their autistic peers," Jones says. "Our study offers an important first step to this approach."

Noor Pervez, the community engagement coordinator for the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), who is autistic, tells Verywell that that masking is damaging for autistic people because "it forces us to burn a lot of our energy on trying to look like a not-autistic person."

"Pushing an autistic person to use a certain tone of voice, make eye contact, stop stimming, or perform active listening makes us have to focus on that rather than on being involved," he explains. "For autistic people of color, who often already have to perform code-switching, this can be a different layer of stressful, and can make things additionally complicated or difficult."

Research has also shown that stimming helps autistic people avoid "autistic burnout." A 2020 article published in the Autism in Adulthood journal explained how autistic people not being able to tune stressors out, which an autistic person can do through stimming, is a negative thing. "Participants described being more sensitive than usual to environmental stimuli and less able to tune them out...even if they were those the participants would otherwise enjoy," the researchers wrote.

Masking has also been linked to a late or missed autism diagnosis in girls. According to a 2017 commentary published in the Autism journal, girls with autism may camouflage better than boys with autism. However, the author wrote that "the [autistic] girls were not able to maintain mutual engagement in activities...and were not able to adjust their behavior to align with group norms" when interacting on a playground with non-autistic peers. Despite showing signs of autistic traits, camouflaging may lead to delayed appropriate therapy.

What This Means For You

If you are not autistic and want to become more involved and challenge your own biases, ASAN has a resource library on its website of publications that benefit its community, and its 2020 book Welcome to the Autism Community, which is available online for free, has a chapter dedicated to being an ally.

How to Be a Better Ally to the Autistic Community

In order for non-autistic people to become better allies to the autism community, they should reflect on how they view and speak about autistic people.

"That means learning about how experiencing our society while autistic can look different for people of color, for nonspeaking people, for transgender people," Pervez says. "It also means forcing yourself to think about how people talk about us impacts us, and about how the way we are treated impacts us."

Pervez also recommends that non-autistic people look further into what organizations targeting the autism community actually work to support and include autistic people, rather than being run by non-autistic people who may have negative implicit and explicit biases about autism.

"For example, you look at the amount of funding used by a given government or organization aimed at childhood research for autistic people, also thinking, 'How much money does this organization give for researching autistic adults?" he says. "If they say they provide direct supports, how much of their money is going towards that?"

For non-autistic people looking to become better allies to autistic people, there are available resources that they can turn to instead of putting pressure on autistic people in their daily lives to act as educators. ASAN has a resource library on its website of publications that benefit its community, and its 2020 book Welcome to the Autism Community, which is available online for free, has a chapter dedicated to being an ally. Some of the recommendations in the chapter touch on the following:

  • Learn about autism from autistic people. This can be done by contacting organizations like the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network or asking a question with the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic on Twitter.
  • Non-autistic people should not share videos and other media of autistic people without their consent.
  • Allow autistic people to stim and respect their bodily autonomy.
  • Respect all autistic people's communication, whether they are verbal or non-verbal.
  • Do not make assumptions about autistic people based on your own biases about autism.
  • Talk about autism respectfully. Ask autistic people if they prefer identity-first or person-first language, and recognize that many autistic people do not like the symbol of a blue puzzle piece that is sometimes associated with autism.
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Article Sources
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