Valerie Pavilonis

A recent Yale study found that individuals with autism spectrum disorder traits are as good or even slightly better social psychologists than those who do not have traits of autism.

The researchers found that social psychological skill — the ability to make general predictions about how others think, feel and behave — is positively related to autism spectrum disorder traits. People with traits of autism may be able to view situations more analytically, without needing to assess the emotional or mental states of individuals, the study reports.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept. 9, the study highlights the importance of distinguishing between different types of social intelligence.

“In autism, there are difficulties in being able to accomplish intuitive social skills like one-on-one interactions and reading social cues,” said Anton Gollwitzer GRD ’21, psychology doctoral student and primary author of the study. “But because social psychological skill is about generalized predictions rather than individual interactions, [we predicted that] people who are higher in autism might actually be very good at social psychology.”

Gollwitzer and John Bargh, professor of psychology and co-author of the study, had previously developed a novel measure of social psychological skill in the form of a questionnaire. In the study, the researchers administered this questionnaire to more than 6,000 participants and compared levels of autistic traits with social psychological skill.

Surprisingly, they found that those with higher levels of autistic traits were better at predicting the behavior of the general population than those with lower levels.

“This is pretty interesting, as it’s a social skill that’s quite different from these other types of social skills that people have talked about so much,” Gollwitzer said. “We tend to discuss person perception in terms of one-on-one skills, and to show that there might be these more reflective judgements that people who are commonly thought to not be socially skilled are very good at, is an inspirational direction to follow in terms of bringing out those skills in a societal light.”

The researchers also investigated whether social psychological skill is related to systemizing, or finding patterns in systems — a trait found to be, on average, more prominent in people with autism. Indeed, the study found a positive relationship between systemizing and social psychological skill.

According to Cameron Martel ’20, another co-author of the study, this finding suggests that systemizing could be the underlying reason for the positive relationship between social psychological skill and higher levels of autistic traits. Systemizing could allow those with autistic traits to make predictions about others’ behavior without needing to assess individual mental states, he explained.

While the positive relationship found between higher levels of autistic traits and social psychological skill may not be particularly large, the researchers noted that their results are significant, as they did not find the strong negative correlation that they had expected.

“The intuitive hypothesis might be that people who have higher levels of autistic traits are worse [at social psychology],” said James McPartland, director of the Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic and co-author of the study. “It turned out that they were slightly better, which was a surprising finding.”

The researchers also emphasized that they compared individuals with high levels of autistic traits to those with low levels, rather than testing a specific population of individuals with clinically diagnosed autism. Autistic traits span a range and do not constitute an all-or-none phenomenon, Gollwitzer explained.

“We all have varying levels of these autistic traits,” McPartland said, adding that investigating social psychological ability in people with clinically diagnosed autism is a potential future direction of study.

If a positive correlation is also found between those with clinically-diagnosed autism and social psychological ability, the next step would be to investigate which specific components of these social situations people with autistic traits are better at. These results could inform strategies to help people with autistic traits in other areas of social interaction, McPartland explained.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 59 children have autism spectrum disorder.

Ashley Qin | ashley.qin@yale.edu