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December 8th, 2017

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05:52 pm - Thoughts on a likely mistaken study about autism
I recently ran into this article about a study that supposedly shows that people with autism regularly misread social cues, including unconscious scent cues (which was the focus of the study). The key result was:
“Two groups were then exposed to either to the "smell of fear" or to a control odor. The smell of fear was sweat collected from people taking skydiving classes, and control odor was sweat from the same people, only this time it had been collected when they were just exercising -- without feeling fear.

This is where differences emerged: Although neither group reported detecting dissimilarities between the two smells, their bodies reacted to each in a different way. In the control group, smelling the fear-induced sweat produced measurable increases in the fear response, for example in skin conductivity, while the everyday sweat did not. In the autistic men, fear-induced sweat lowered their fear responses, while the odor of "calm sweat" did the opposite: It raised their measurable anxiety levels…

In other words, the autistic volunteers in the experiment did not display an inability to read the olfactory social cues in smell, but rather they misread them.”
That sort of consistency doesn’t look at all like misreading social cues, but instead it looks like reading them just as well neurotypical people, but reacting to the cues differently. I talked with my partner AJ, who has Asperger’s, and they confirmed what I thought, that in their experience (of both themselves and of other people they know who are on the autism spectrum) seeing other people being stressed/afraid tends to make them unconsciously calmer and more focused on dealing with the problem that causing this stress – something I specifically noticed in 2008, when we were kicked out of the duplex we were renting with 30 days’ notice because the owners wanted to sell it. Becca and I panicked a lot (in amidst getting a whole lot done), while AJ became notably more focused and effective than usual.

In essence, the study sounds like it may have had a solid methodology, but the conclusions seem to have been based on the idea that autistic people are merely bad at reading and responding to social cues rather than being (from what I’ve seen) socially different.

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Date:December 9th, 2017 07:08 am (UTC)
I wasn't going to pay to read the original article, but even the abstract uses "misread" three times, so I think we can take it that the full article does too. The control group is referred to as TD (typically developed), but yeah, they might as well have written "normal", considering the normative language their conclusions are couched in.

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