Fighting First Impressions

I ran across an academic paper that reviewed research into “thin slice judgments” of autistic people by neurotypical people. (It can also be downloaded and saved as a PDF for those who might prefer to do so.) For those who might not have encountered the term before, thin slice judgments are the ones we make very quickly and with minimal exposure when encountering another person. They represent our ‘gut feeling’ about someone or what we often describe as our ‘first impression’. It’s often an unconscious reaction rather than anything we consider. And the results of these studies were pretty telling. Neurotypical thin slice judgments of autistic people tend to be negative. The studies were constructed differently, but all revealed the same underlying bias.

Specifically, we are viewed as people our allistic peers are less likely to speak to, sit near, or spend time with. We are perceived as more awkward, more unapproachable, less dominant, and less likable. It’s important to recognize that the nature of thin slice judgments is that they are based on extremely minimal input. They are, however, powerful. It’s those very early judgments that determine how likely we are to interact with someone at all or for more than a few seconds. The first study even included different modalities and the only one that didn’t show a difference was when the participants were reading a written transcript.

I very much doubt that’s exactly a surprise to any of my autistic peers. We know we are treated differently. We’re familiar with all the social barriers we face. And for those of us who were late diagnosed, that was true long before we had any idea we were autistic. However, this study illustrates that it’s not as simple as autistic “social deficits” on our part. Thin slice judgments are not based on any actual social interaction. These are the unconscious judgments before any meaningful interaction or even any interaction whatsoever occurs.

As a result, autistic people are constantly fighting an uphill battle against those negative first impressions. Since some of those judgments are whether or not someone will even sit with us or speak to us, it’s an ongoing struggle just to engage with our allistic peers. We’re fighting against their thin slice judgments.

For me, that helps explain why all my work learning social rules, practicing verbal tone and inflection, rehearsing facial expressions, and studying acting has always been insufficient. Thin slice judgments come into play before any of those can be brought to bear. A lot of the time I never even get the chance to employ the varied social skills I’ve developed. It’s not unusual for me to be in a crowded social setting and have nobody speak to me at all. Sometimes I’ll make an effort, with varying degrees of success, to initiate conversations with people. But I can also go a whole evening with nobody in a crowd of strangers or almost strangers ever interacting with me.

I found this paper personally helpful. It’s good to know that it’s not just my imagination. And it’s good to know that it’s based on their judgments rather than anything I’ve actually done or said. But it’s also somewhat discouraging. I’m already at a disadvantage when actively interacting and engaging with the larger neurotypical world. I also have to climb out of a hole dug by their negative first impressions before I can even get to the starting line. And there’s no learned skill or strategy that can alter thin slice judgments. Extended interaction always gives you the chance to overcome and reverse them. But the nature of thin slice judgments is that they have a lot to do with whom people choose to interact in the first place.

I find this search of research helpful. Your mileage may vary, of course.

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