“I’m Proud to be a Little Bit Different”: The Effects of Autistic Individuals’ Perceptions of Autism and Autism Social Identity on Their Collective Self-esteem, a summary for non-academics

Fingerprint on coloured background

Written by Bec Poulsen 

Authors: Cooper, R., Cooper, K., Russell, AJ., Smith, LGE.

Affiliation: Department of Psychology, University of Bath 

Journal: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 

In this open access research coming out of the UK, Rosalind Cooper and colleagues surveyed Autistic adults. The aim was to understand how perceiving Autistic attributes positively and identifying as Autistic and as part of the Autistic community might be associated with wellbeing. 

Introduction 

This study looked at Autistic people’s perceptions of their social identity and collective self-esteem, and then considered the relationship between the two. Social identity theory has been around since the 1970s and explains how we are drawn to identify with particular social groups – in this research, the Autistic community. Collective self-esteem refers to the part of our self-concept that is based on being a member of social group. Collective self-esteem includes how valuable we feel a particular social group to which we belong is, and what we believe the public’s perception of that group is.  

In this study, Autistic people were asked to name any qualities or attributes they associated with Autism. They rated these as positive, negative, or neutral. Then, the researchers assessed the Autistic participants’ more in-depth perceptions of these qualities, including their personal experiences. The Autistic people described how their Autistic experiences related to their identity, to see if this identity was related to their collective self-esteem. 

Why did they do the study? 

Increasingly, Autistic people, clinicians and researchers are focusing on exploring and promoting the strengths associated with Autism, rather than just on a deficits-based clinical model. Social attitudes towards Autism are shifting towards an acceptance of difference and an acknowledgement of strengths. Previous research has shown that this shift has a dramatic and positive effect on mental health.  

Simultaneously, while there is a general discomfort with associating Autism with terms such as “disorder” and “deficit”, it is important to acknowledge the challenges facing Autistic people, which often arise from living in an environment that does not cater to Autistic people.  

Finally, there is evidence to suggest that Autistic people see Autism as an identity rather than just a diagnosis, which includes embracing all aspects of being Autistic, and this identification can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing.  

Given this previous research, Cooper and colleagues did this research to understand just what relationship exists between an Autistic person’s perception of their Autistic characteristics and their feelings of identity as Autistic and with other Autistics. 

What did they find? 

Firstly, the Autistic people in the study described the attributes or qualities they associate with Autism, and classified them as either positive, negative, or neutral. Positive qualities included “gifted”, “unique”, “special interests”, “attention to detail”, “rational” and “caring”. Negative descriptors included “social skill difficulties”, “sensory issues”, “communication issues” and “emotional difficulties”. Negative attributes also described general Autistic experiences, such as “loneliness”, “anxiety” and “bullied”. Examples of neutral attributes included “cognitive differences”, “routines”, “stimming” and “introversion”.  

Then the researchers talked to some of the Autistic participants at length about these attributes and how they affect them in real life. They found that: 

  1. Autistic people regularly experience challenges, including intrinsic differences, rejection, and lack of understanding of and from others.  
  1. Autism is characterised by diversity and adaptation. The people in the study acknowledged Autism as a “spectrum” and discussed the positive and negative effects of the environment on their experience. They said that correct diagnosis and time to adapt leads to positive changes and improvements in their wellbeing. 
  1. Autistic people navigate their differences to increase their self-acceptance and resilience. 
  1. A positive Autistic identity highlights the advantage of Autism attributes and is involved with personal and collective Autistic pride. 

Interestingly, the researchers found that there was a positive association between Autistic people’s collective self-esteem and the number of positive characteristics they linked to Autism. Also, they found a strong positive relationship between Autistic social identification and collective self-esteem. Associating more positive attributes with Autism had a positive impact on someone’s collective self-esteem, and this recognition created a feeling of inclusion and community.  

Why is this important?  

This study shows us that the more positively an Autistic person feels about Autistic attributes, the stronger their Autistic self-identification is, and the stronger their self-esteem and sense of belonging is through their social identity and collective self-esteem. 

The research is important because it provides evidence that we should be supporting Autistic individuals to think of themselves and their community positively and that Autistic people connecting with one another can have a positive impact on individual wellbeing.  

How can families and allies support positive social identity and self-esteem? 

Families and allies can support Autistic people to consider their Autistic attributes positively and can encourage them to feel connected to the Autistic community by:  

  1. Ensuring educational and clinical settings and support services encourage positive identity and include positive attributes of the Autistic profile 
  1. Encouraging online and community participation in Autistic-led groups, particularly after diagnosis 
  1. Advocating a wider awareness of all attributes of Autism to the greater community, not just the negative attributes that are most often talked about 
  1. Ensuring clinical and therapeutic support of co-occurring conditions (some of these were described as negative attributes, like anxiety), and  
  1. Acknowledging all attributes of Autism from a medical and clinical perspective. 

This research is important because it looks at all positive, negative and neutral attributes of the Autistic profile as perceived by Autistic people, instead of just a deficit-based or third-hand description of Autism. Looking at all the features of the Autistic profile from an Autistic point of view can foster a positive self-identity.  

By being a part of the Autistic community and by embracing a social identity as Autistic, we can reduce Autistic isolation, increase a sense of Autistic community, inform clinical and medical practices to better support Autistic people, and increase broad general awareness of the wide breadth of Autistic attributes, while reducing stigma surrounding negative attributes.  

Subscribe

Whether you are Autistic, you love someone Autistic, or you work with Autistic people, we want to hear from you.

Anyone who is committed to achieving inclusion and acceptance for the Autistic community can take advantage of our educational program by subscribing. Subscription is free and offers you priority access to all Reframing Autism events.

Sign up with your email address to receive news and updates.