Public awareness campaign could improve “social success” for people with autism, study reveals

Raising the public’s awareness of autism could improve social outcomes for people living with neurodivergent conditions, a major study has revealed.

The paper, published by The University of Texas at Dallas, explores the strengths of highlighting autism symptoms, rather than concealing them, to improve “social success”.

According to the report, attempts to improve social capability usually involves teaching people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to “think and behave” like non-autistic peers and “hide the characteristics” that define them.

But the researchers thought another approach – “promoting the understanding and acceptance of autism among non-autistic people” – could be more effective.

To carry out the study, 238 non-autistic adults were split into three groups. The first was shown an autism acceptance video, which highlighted how to approach and engage someone with autism. The second group watched a general mental health training presentation, while the third received no training at all.

As hypothesized, the first group demonstrated a “greater understanding and acceptance” of autism when asked to comment on video clips featuring autistic people, compared to peers who did not watch the autism acceptance video. This included more “positive first impressions” of the subject.

Commenting on the paper, author Desiree Jones said: “Targeting autistic behaviour places the burden of social exclusion on autistic people when we should really be challenging the attitudes that lead others to stigmatize autistic behaviours.

“Research on race suggests that people who have racial biases tend to view that race as a monolith, assigning every member the same features. By exposing them to different people from the group, you can challenge those stereotypes. We believe the same principle applies to autism.”

Co-author Dr Noah Sasson added: “It’s not easy to be autistic in a predominantly non-autistic world, and making the social world a bit more accommodating and welcoming to autistic differences could go a long way toward improving personal and professional outcomes for autistic people.”

According to the latest statistics, autism affects around one in every 100 people, meaning there are around 700,000 individuals on the autism spectrum in the UK.

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