Speech bubble formed by a network of communication

Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Hello, and welcome to this week’s Community Newsletter! I’m your host, Chelsey B. Coombs, Spectrum’s engagement editor.

This week, Spectrum headed to the annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) — virtually, of course — to find out what’s new in the field. You can read all of our coverage on Spectrum.

We also kept an eye out for what you were saying online about INSAR. Here’s a sampling.

INSAR’s keynote addresses were a highlight of the conference.

Petrus J de Vries, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, gave a talk called “What kind of research should we do and where should we do it?” that focused on what his research team has learned working with the tuberous sclerosis complex community, as well as autism research in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC).

A keynote address from Tony Charman, chair of clinical child psychology at King’s College London in the United Kingdom, looked at early autism diagnosis and intervention, and what researchers can learn from the past.

Many tweeted about the COVID-required virtual format of the conference.

Although virtual conferences can expand access to people far from the conference’s location, Gail Alvares, a postdoctoral researcher at Telethon Kids Institute in Nedlands, Australia, wrote that this can actually be a drawback for people in far-off time zones.

Brianne Tomaszewski, assistant professor of psychiatary at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tweeted that the virtual format reminded her of a quote from a recent commentary in Autism Research, “A lost generation? The impact of the COVID‐19 pandemic on early career ASD researchers.”

Many people also tweeted about INSAR’s pre-recorded presentation format.

One pseudonymous attendee said the format is great for allowing panelists to answer questions as they come up during the presentation.

But some of the panelists, like Monique Botha, research fellow at the University of Stirling in Scotland, were a little uneasy watching themselves give a recorded talk.

Although we can’t go into the Twitter discussion of all the research presented at INSAR, we did want to highlight one thread from Noah Sasson, associate professor of behavioral and brain sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. His tweets about research from Kilee DeBrabander, a graduate student in Sasson’s lab, got a lot of engagement.

The study focused on metaperception: a person’s beliefs about how others perceive them. Autistic and non-autistic participants had a five-minute introductory conversation with another person. They were then asked to rate the quality of the conversation, as well as how their partner would rate it and whether they thought the person would want to talk to them again in the future.

Both autistic and non-autistic participants had difficulty predicting how their conversation partners viewed them.

However, only autistic adults accurately predicted when their partners wanted to interact with them again and when they didn’t.

Sasson suggested that the results are a reminder of the weaknesses of the ‘deficit model,’ which posits that autism traits are problematic and that autistic people do not understand or want to relate to others. This framing has been criticized by neurodiversity advocates for pathologizing autism rather than recognizing the condition as a different way of thinking. The findings, he wrote, may even turn that model on its head and suggest that autism researchers need to examine how their own biases color their interpretations of study results.

Damian Milton, a lecturer in developmental and intellectual disabilities at the University of Kent in the U.K., wondered about framing these results in the context of the double-empathy problem. The double-empathy problem describes the difficulty two people with different life experiences have in empathizing with each other. For example, many non-autistic people blame the problems they have communicating with an autistic person on the autistic person, but research has shown that the difficulties actually come from both people.

Debra Karhson, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University in California and president of the Stanford Black Postdoc Association, tweeted, “I love how there is more and more research coming out that is starting to complicate the clinical view of #autism.”

The traditional social-cognitive view of autism has been that autistic people are worse at communicating than non-autistic people. But as Kristen Bottema-Beutel succinctly summed up, this study is another piece of evidence that autistic people may be better at some aspects of communication than neurotypical people.

That’s it for this week’s Spectrum Community Newsletter! We’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming next week. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for interesting social posts you saw in the autism research sphere, feel free to send an email to me at chelsey@spectrumnews.org. See you next week!


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