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Educational intervention may relieve some of the stigma of autism

April 02, 2019
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SFU post-doctoral researcher Nichole Scheerer wants to find ways to eradicate the stigma that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience every day.

She is working on a study investigating whether an educational presentation about autism might positively influence high school students’ reactions to those with ASD.

So far, Scheerer, along with psychology professor Grace Iarocci and the Autism and Developmental Disorders Lab, has presented 118 Grade 12 students with a series of 10-second video clips of 40 people, half of whom have ASD. The students then answered questions about whether they felt each person was aggressive, attractive, awkward, honest, likeable or smart, and whether they would feel comfortable living near them, hanging out with them or sitting next to them.

Overall, the high school students were found to respond more negatively to the clips of people with ASD, relative to those without ASD.

However, prior to watching the videos and answering the questions, the researchers first presented half of the students with an educational intervention that explained to students the challenges often faced by people with ASD, including candid stories from people with ASD, who shared their experiences. The students then viewed the same video clips and answered the same questions. Overall, they still rated the people with ASD more negatively.

But one aspect stood out, says Scheerer.

When the second group of students was asked if they would be comfortable sitting next to the person with ASD, their responses showed a significant reduction in stigma in that area, compared to the first group of students who didn’t receive the educational intervention.

“These preliminary findings suggest the educational intervention does have the potential to impact stigma,” says Scheerer, “because the answer to that question shows behavioural intention, rather than just an opinion on attractiveness or honesty.”

An interesting correlation between social competence and ASD stigma

The study also revealed an interesting correlation between ASD stigma and the students’ social competence, which is a measure of, for example, social motivation and social knowledge.

“The students who scored higher in social competence demonstrated more stigma,” says Scheerer, who says it may be because they more readily recognize unusual social behaviours.

The good news?

“It’s very possible that because they’re more aware of these social differences, they may make good candidates to step up and become supportive friends to those with ASD.

“Because they have high social motivation, and because they’re implicitly aware, they may be more likely to approach and befriend.”

While data collection is still underway for this study, Scheerer says future studies will examine whether such implicit biases translate into behavioural intentions—or in other words, whether this stigma can predict and explain people’s behaviour towards people with ASD.

“The big story we’re trying to unpack is how do these 10-second implicit judgements impact how we treat people with disabilities, and specifically, people with autism.”

For more information about this and other studies conducted by the Autism and Developmental Disorders Lab, visit http://autismlab.psyc.sfu.ca.