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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.