Beliefs of Autistic People's Pain Sensitivity and Implications

Author: ORCID icon
Basargekar, Abha, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Jaswal, Vikram, AS-Psychology (PSYC), University of Virginia

Beliefs of how much pain individuals feel vary by social groups, and represent stereotypes of these groups. Pain stereotypes are informed by perceptions of members of social groups, such as their toughness or emotionality. In three papers (total N = 1123), we investigated stereotypes about autistic people’s pain and perceptions of autistic people informing these stereotypes. In Paper 1, autistic and non-autistic participants believed that an autistic adult target would feel more pain in several physically painful scenarios involving mild injuries, and socially painful scenarios involving emotionally and interpersonally hurtful situations. We hypothesized that beliefs of autistic people’s hypersensitivity to pain may signal that autistic people are perceived to be vulnerable and infantilized, and examined non-autistic people’s infantilizing perceptions of autistic people. In Paper 2, non-autistic participants demonstrated attitudes suggesting that they perceive autistic people in infantilizing ways. Specifically, participants rated an autistic adult target to be as sensitive to pain as autistic and non-autistic child targets, granted less decisional authority to an autistic adult target than to a non-autistic adult target, and expressed more pity for an autistic adult target than a non-autistic adult target. However, in Paper 3, non-autistic participants’ perceptions of an autistic adult target were inconsistent with an infantilization account. Specifically, participants did not rate an autistic adult to be more emotional than a non-autistic adult, or less agentic than a non-autistic adult. Our findings suggest that autistic adults may be infantilized in some ways by being perceived as vulnerable and being granted less decisional authority, but are not perceived as being child-like in all ways, such as in terms of their emotionality and agency.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Autism, Ableism, Stereotypes, Pain judgments, Infantilization
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