Bias in Disability- “How Others See You”



Meeting Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bias in Disability- “How Others See You”

Speakers: Dr. Grace Iarocci & Nicki Scheerer




Dr. Grace Iarocci and Dr. Nikki Scheerer  presented to us their recent research on bias in disability. They are looking at how unconscious and first impressions fairly or unfairly, contribute to one’s assessment, and consequently, treatment of an individual. While this research is in very early stages, the intention is to direct their findings to improving autism awareness and understanding in the general population, and particularly in high schools. The hope is that this will decrease the difficulties that individuals with disabilities have with functioning and interacting with others, and enable us all to move toward a fully inclusive society.  We really appreciate their willingness to share their studies, even though findings are not yet conclusive.

The Structure of the Research Project

Seventy-seven high school students, aged 16-19, 50 female & 27 male, were asked to view 40 – 10 second video clips of various adolescents, with and without autism, being interviewed, ostensibly, as applicants to a reality TV show. The 77 participants also were of mixed ethnicities, and were screened for previous exposure to ASD individuals. These participants were divided into two groups; one group was given an approximately one hour educational presentation prior to seeing the 40 video clips, the other group was not. After seeing the videos, the participants were asked to rate the individuals in the videos in terms of various characteristics – attractiveness, intelligence, likability, trustworthiness, dominance/submissiveness. They also indicated their willingness to live near the individual, likelihood of hanging out with the individual in their free time, their level of comfort sitting next to the individual, and their likelihood of starting a conversation with the individual.

The Findings

Overall, ASD individuals in the video clips were perceived more negatively than Typically Developing individuals. Furthermore, the ratings of the group that had received the pre-video educational presentation did not statistically differ from the ratings of the group who did not receive the educational presentation.

The Qualifiers

This research is in its early stages, and the findings need to be replicated, but seem to support the results of the research of Noah Sasson et al (2017). These, and other studies indicate that negative bias occurs even in very young individuals – it would be interesting to include in future studies, participants younger and older –a broader range than the high school students in this study. Perhaps high school students are extremely conscious about “fitting in”, and are therefore are hyper-sensitive to “differentness”, and are not receptive to friendships with people whom they perceive as being “different”. One of our parents present suggested that future studies include participants in the Faculty of Education at SFU, in order to test for bias in our future classroom teachers – a suggestion that Grace acknowledged could be possible.  Further consideration also needs to be given to the educational presentation and why it made so little difference in the ratings of the participants. Was it too dry and factual? Too long, too short? Not visually interesting? We were not shown this educational presentation at our meeting. Understanding if & how education can influence perceptional bias will be key to creating greater general acceptance of individuals with disabilities. Dr. Iarocci plans to work with Autistics United to develop a more sensitive educational presentation for future studies.

What We Learned

  • “Thin Slicing” – humans make judgments, after very short exposure to a person or a situation -“first impressions” that are often (but not always) quite accurate. This is almost a survival instinct – a response to a potential or perceived threat. However, many of us have also experienced situations where our first impressions are incorrect – where we have been impressed by someone who later lets us down, or where we have failed initially to see qualities in someone we later come to admire.

(Thin-slicing is a term used in psychology to refer to the human ability to find patterns in events based on very quick inferences about characteristics of an individual).

  • Women are better than men at making accurate, quick judgements than men. Very young people, as well as older individuals, also make very quick judgements about others.
  • More socially competent individuals are more able to pick out people who are “different”, but are also less likely to be empathetic towards those who are different.
  • Finally, one of the most significant findings – the social difficulties that an individual experiences, occur within an interpersonal and social context. This means that approaches to overcoming these difficulties must be not only be directed at the individuals with the disabilities. This turns conventional treatment on its head, as traditionally, treatment has been focused on “fixing” the individual.

Where We Go From Here

  • Bias exists and “Differentness” is interpreted negatively, in most instances. But can the behaviours that are the response to bias be modified through education? By removing the fear that often accompanies the perception of differentness? How can we achieve this?
  • The finding that bias exists is evidence that when social difficulties occur they are due both to the behaviour of the individual with the disability, and the behavior of others in their social sphere. Therefore, solutions should not be imposed upon the individual with the disability, to make them fit (Square Pegs in Round Holes!). People with disabilities do not want to be pitied, or made over – ask them what they need to improve their interface with their world. “Nothing about us without us”.
  • People with disabilities are affected by the negative biases that others hold of them, and many perceive, and are hurt by these biases, which negatively impact their mental health and their ability to function.
  • Parents also hold biases – and should be given support and training, as an integral part of the social support circles around individuals with disabilities.
  • The Role of Education. Maybe education for social acceptance and social change is much more complex that we have previously assumed – that it requires many steps and much time, and is built on much more than information sharing – perhaps a focus empathy building through art, film, theatre, ie, Theatre of the Oppressed?

We can help by helping to model and speak out that people with disabilities want a full and meaningful life, and to continually create opportunities for them to do so.

Dr. Iarocci is a psychology professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and the Director of the Autism & Developmental Disorders Lab at SFU. Work in the Lab focuses mainly on two streams of basic research: 1) understanding the development of selective attention in humans and the implications for object and social perception, and 2) understanding atypical development (e.g. autism spectrum disorder-ASD) where there are documented attentional/perceptual processing atypicalities that interfere with some aspects of perception yet facilitate others. Grace is also interested in social competence and the link to mental health and family well-being.


Tips to help you connect with individuals who have ASD.

  • Try to connect. Social isolation is a big risk for people with ASD. Avoidance makes that worse.
  • Keep an open mind. Just because a person struggles to connect does not mean they do not want to. Some people with autism are very social and desire friendships just like everyone else.
  • Set aside fears. Remember that ASD does not automatically make a person aggressive. Meltdowns can happen, but they’re often about being overwhelmed. If your ASD acquaintance is visibly agitated, merely give them space and time to calm themselves.
  • Forget social norms and conventions. Repetitive behaviours, such as hand flapping or noises, are coping mechanisms — nothing to be concerned about. Remember that eye contact may be difficult for an ASD person. Many ASD people use their body — not words — to communicate. Try not to stare when they do unusual things.
  • Look for creative ways to connect. Ask a caregiver for best practice advice for individuals. Speak at a reasonable pace and volume, and use short sentences. Some children connect with touch, music or animals. Think non-verbal, perhaps pictures or flash-cards. Don’t expect an immediate response; it may take time.
  • Be aware of sensitivities. Some people with autism are hypersensitive to sounds, smells or certain physical sensations. Some are exactly the opposite. Ask a caregiver for advice about making the environment comfortable for the person with ASD.
  • Let people practice. Reach out and help ASD people practice social interaction. Every child and young adult needs to practice social interaction.
  • Foster awareness. Remember your reaction to a person with ASD becomes part of how they see themselves and how others see them.
  • Advocate for more respect and behavioural training supports. Sound the alarm about the lack of services for people, especially once they hit age 18. Take an active stand against bullying and abuse.
  • Be inclusive. Keep in mind that ASD is complex. Focus on more than just a “cure.” Think acceptance and inclusion. Says Iarocci: “It’s not the kind of thing you can fix. You need to be understanding. People with ASD just do things differently.”