Children with autism, who are unable to grasp the mental states of others, can nonetheless identify with conventional stereotypes based on a person's race and sex, researchers recently reported in Current Biology.
"Even with their limited capacities for social interaction and their apparent inability to orient to social stimuli, these autistic kids pick up and endorse social stereotypes as readily as normally developing kids," said Lawrence Hirschfeld of the New School for Social Research in New York. "One take-away point is that stereotypes are very easy to learn and very robust. They don't require higher order attention, or apparently even attention to social stimuli, to develop. Stereotypes can be learned even in the face of damage to the 'social brain' and under extraordinarily constrained conditions."
The profound inability of children with autism to engage in everyday social interaction, as well as impairments in verbal and nonverbal communication, had been attributed to a severe delay in "theory of mind" (ToM) development--the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own. If the use of stereotypes and mental states were part and parcel of the same underlying cognitive process, then autistic children would have similar difficulties with both.
In fact, the researchers found that autistic children who have a verbal age between 6 and 7 years--and who fail ToM tasks--know and use gender and race stereotypes just like normal children. Hirschfeld said he suspects the stereotypes originate within subtle and seemingly incidental messages that saturate the culture--for example, through advertising or biased attention by the media. The kids might also learn about stereotypes from parental behaviors, such as locking car doors when in certain neighborhoods, even if parents carefully monitor what they say about race to their children.
Stereotypes are not inherently negative, he said. "We wouldn't be able to think without social categories," he said. "Stereotypical roles are important for navigating everyday interactions. Finding a plumber would be difficult if we thought of people only as unique individuals. Getting through the check-out line would be unwieldy if we didn't have simple scripts about the roles that both shoppers and cashiers play."
The results suggest that different kinds of social reasoning occur through independent mechanisms in all people. The autistic children's surprising ability to recognize broad categories of people might also lead to new methods for helping them improve their ability to function in society, he said.
Caregivers today often attempt to teach children with autism ToM skills, particularly techniques that make them more sensitive to other people's mental states. Capitalizing on the kids' strengths in understanding social categories might offer an alternative and easier learning method for interpreting the behavior of others, one that doesn't involve "swimming upstream," Hirschfeld said.
The researchers include Lawrence Hirschfeld of the New School for Social Research in New York, NY; Elizabeth Bartmess of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI; Sarah White and Uta Frith of UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London, UK.
This work was supported by MRC programme grant 65013 to UF and a research grant to LH and EB by the Culture and Cognition Program, University of Michigan USA.
Reference: Hirschfeld et al.: "Can autistic children predict behavior by social stereotypes?" Publishing in Current Biology, 19 June 2007, R451-452.
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