"There's Something Missing in Their Brains" The Effects of Dehumanizing Language on Autism Dehumanization and Stereotypes

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0001-9107-2509
Robertson, Zoe Sargent, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Jaswal, Vikram, AS-Psychology (PSYC), University of Virginia

Autistic people are routinely characterized in dehumanizing ways, even in literature intended for children. In three preregistered studies (Total N = 354), I investigated how the language used to describe autistic children influences U.S. children’s attitudes toward them. In Studies 1 and 2, 8- to 10-year-old children heard about two autistic peers with similar characteristics. One peer belonged to a group that was described in dehumanizing ways—as lacking fundamentally and uniquely human characteristics and as acting like an animal—and the other peer belonged to a group that was described in relatively humanizing ways. Participants rated both groups as less human than non-autistic children, and they rated the dehumanized group as less human than the humanized group. Additionally, they indicated that the dehumanized group should be educated and punished differently than the humanized group. In Study 3, I conceptually replicated Studies 1 and 2 using language taken from an award-winning children’s book about an autistic character. Eight- to 10-year-old children who heard the dehumanizing, status quo story rated autistic peers as less human than children who heard a humanizing alternative story. In Study 3, I also investigated the effects of dehumanizing language on children’s warmth and competence judgments of autistic peers, how these judgments relate to dehumanizing attitudes, and how dehumanization, warmth, and competence judgments predict beliefs about how the autistic groups should be treated. The results of these dissertation studies provide insights to inform debates about how autistic people ought to be described and can additionally inform further research aimed at improving non-autistic children’s attitudes towards their autistic peers.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
autism, dehumanization, language, stereotype content model, social judgments
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