"It's Okay If You Flap Your Hands": Non-Autistic Children Do Not Object to Autistic-Like Behavior and Peers

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

Young children’s disapproval of unconventional behavior could influence their attitudes towards autistic peers, whose behavior is often described as unconventional. Non-autistic children and adults do stigmatize autistic people on the basis of their atypical behaviors, but they do so to a lesser degree when they are aware of the autistic person’s diagnosis. Here, we investigated how young children evaluate behaviors characteristic of autism, and whether labeling would influence their evaluations. Over Zoom, 112 4- to 7-year-olds heard six vignettes about three normative characters and a fourth, autistic-like character. Half were told that the autistic-like character was autistic (“label” condition); the rest received no such explanation (“no-label” condition). Then, children answered questions about the behaviors and characters. Children were more likely to say they would engage in normative than autistic-like behaviors, and they evaluated normative behaviors and characters more positively than autistic-like behaviors and characters. However, children also approved of both normative and autistic-like behaviors at levels greater than expected by chance. Additionally, children evaluated gaze aversion more negatively than other autistic-like behaviors, and they were less willing to befriend the character who averted their gaze. These findings suggest that, while young non-autistic children do not generally disapprove of autistic-like behaviors, they may stigmatize peers who do not use eye contact in conventional ways. Adjusting classroom norms around eye contact, and explaining to non-autistic children that peers who look away are not necessarily bad or disrespectful, could play a role in preparing non-autistic children for more successful interactions with their autistic peers.

MA (Master of Arts)
normativity, autism, peer relations, social judgments
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