Children with autism ‘can understand other people through stereotypes’

From Volume 4 Number 9

LONDON, UK: Autistic children have a capacity to understand other people through stereotypes, say scientists at University College London. The research shows that autistic children are just as able as others to predict people’s behaviour when stereotypes, such as gender and race, are the only available guide.
    The psychologist who led the research, which was published in the journal, Current Biology, believes that stereotypes could be used to help improve how autistic children relate to other people, by playing to their strength for understanding groups.
    Professor Uta Frith, of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said: “Autism
affects around 500,000 families in the UK. Increasing an autistic child's capacity to understand other people is one of the keys to improving the lives of these families. One of the main problems experienced by autistic children is that they are unable to understand why others are doing certain things: what motivates them or what they are thinking and feeling. Most of us have this ability, known as ‘Theory of Mind.’
    “This research shows that, although many autism sufferers do not have this in-built ability, they can still understand stereotypes very well. We hope that their ability to understand groups - even when they struggle with relating to individuals - will be used to aid their learning and socialisation.”
    A group of 49 primary school children (21 with autism and 28 without) were asked questions based on drawings representing males and females coloured in either pink or brown. The researchers asked questions such as: “Here are two children, David and Emma. One of them has four dolls. Which one has four dolls?” The answer Emma conforms to gender stereotypes, the answer David does not.
    Each child completed 36 similar scenario-based questions. They then responded to scenarios where information about an individual’s likes or dislikes conflicted with generic stereotypes. For example, “Here are two people. This is James and this is Grace. Grace doesn’t like to cook for people. One of these people has baked biscuits. Which person baked biscuits?”
    Autistic children with Theory of Mind difficulties performed in the same way as normally develop-ing children in the first task. Seventy-five per cent of the answers children gave - whether they were autistic or not - were in line with commonly held race and gender stereotypes.
    In the second task, either stereotypes or individual likes and dislikes could be used as the basis for an answer. Here, autistic children with Theory of Mind problems became confused. Older normally developing children and autistic children with some inkling of Theory of Mind tended to answer the questions based on an individual’s likes and dislikes.
    Professor Frith said: “Autistic children’s knowledge of race and gender stereotypes is astonishing, given that they lack interest in people.”
    She added: “Of course, stereotypes can be dangerous, as they are the basis of prejudice. But we all use group-based knowledge in situations where we have to make quick decisions and don’t know anything at all about the other person. We hope teachers
and carers will consider using concepts about groups of people to help autistic children integrate better into society by
playing to their strengths.”
    The study was carried out by Professor Uta Frith and Dr Sarah White of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience; Dr Lawrence Hirschfeld of the New School for Social Research in New York, and Elizabeth Bartmess of the University of Michigan.
The study was supported by the Medical Research Council (MRC).
    Dr Hirschfield said:
     “Even with their limited capacities for social interaction and their apparent inability to orient to social stimuli, these autistic kids pick up and endorse social stereotypes as readily as normally developing kids. One take-away point is that stereotypes are very easy to learn and very robust. They don’t require higher-order attention, or apparently even attention to social stimuli, to develop. Stereotypes can be learned even in the face of damage to the ‘social brain’ and under extraordinarily constrained conditions.”
    The profound inability of children with autism to engage in everyday social interaction, as well as impairments in verbal and
non-verbal communication, had been attributed to a severe delay in “theory of mind” (ToM) development - the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own. If the use of stereotypes and mental states were part and parcel of the same underlying cognitive process, then autistic children would have similar difficulties with both.
    In fact, the researchers found that autistic children who have a verbal age between 6 and 7 years - and who fail ToM tasks -know and use gender and race stereotypes just like normal children. Dr Hirschfeld said he suspected that the stereotypes originated within subtle and seemingly incidental messages that saturated the culture - for example, through advertising or biased attention by the media. The children might also learn about stereotypes from parental behaviours, such as locking car doors when in certain neighbourhoods, even if parents carefully monitored what they said about race to their children.
    Stereotypes were not inherently negative, Dr Hirschfield said. “We wouldn’t be able to think without social categories,” he
said. “Stereotypical roles are important for navigating everyday interactions. Finding a plumber would be difficult if we thought of people only as unique individuals. Getting through the check-out line would be unwieldy if we didn’t have simple scripts about the roles that both shoppers and cashiers play.”
    The results suggest that different kinds of social reasoning occur through independent mechanisms in all people. The autistic children’s surprising ability to recognise broad categories of people might also lead to new methods for helping them to improve their ability to function in society, he said.
    Caregivers today often attempt to teach children with autism ToM skills, particularly techniques that make them more sensitive to other people’s mental states. Capitalising on the kids’ strengths in understanding social categories might offer an alternative and easier learning method for interpreting the behaviour of others, one that did not involve “swimming upstream,” Dr Hirschfeld said.

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