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Study challenges assumptions about social interaction difficulties in autism

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Autism is characterized in part by an individual’s challenges communicating and interacting socially with others. These difficulties have typically been studied in isolation by focusing on cognitive and behavioral differences in those with autism, but little work has been done on how exchanges for people with autism unfold in the real world.

Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas recently turned the spotlight on social interaction in autism by examining it as a two-way street. Their results, published in December in the journal Autism, suggest that successful interactions for autistic adults revolve around partner compatibility and not just the skill set of either person.

“Most studies attempting to understand social disability in autism focus exclusively on individual characteristics,” said Dr. Noah Sasson, an associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) and corresponding author of the study. “This presumes that any difficulties in social interaction are driven solely by person with a autism. But how each person influences and is influenced by the other is key to understanding affiliation and social quality.”

The study focused on the so-called “double-empathy problem,” which predicts that two people who are neurologically different and have distinct modes of communication and understanding may have trouble connecting with each other, as commonly occurs in interactions between autistic and non-autistic adults.

In the study, 125 adults held a five-minute, unstructured “getting-to-know-you” conversation with an unfamiliar person. Sixty-seven of the participants had been diagnosed with autism. Each participant then independently evaluated the quality of the interaction and their first impressions of their partner.

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