Do autistic children look less friendly?

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Children with autism are judged as being less friendly and less trustworthy by their peers because of their appearance, says a new study. Research published in the journal Autism suggests that typically developing children are less positive towards children with autism and form negative impressions after just a 30-second encounter.

Dr Steven Stagg of Anglia Ruskin University and psychologists at Royal Holloway, University of London investigated the initial impressions that typically developing children form when watching silent videos of children with autism.

The researchers mixed silent videos of typically developing 11-year-olds with videos of children with autism of a similar age. They then asked 44 school children, aged 11, who were unaware that some of the children they were watching had a diagnosis of autism, to rate the children in the video.

Children with a diagnosis of autism were rated lower on nearly all of the measures. Respondents rated the children with autism as less trustworthy than the typically developing children; they were less likely to want to play with them and less likely to want to be their friend.

“Poor expressivity has been documented in autism, but our research demonstrates that this can have a significant impact on forming first impressions”, says Dr Stagg. Many children with autism spend a great deal of time learning about facial expressivity but the study suggests that by the age of 11, their slower development in this area is already marking them out amongst their typically developing peers.

More than 70 per cent of children with an autism diagnosis currently attend mainstream schools, according to Department for Education figures. Research by the National Autistic Society shows that 40 per cent of children with autism have been bullied. Dr Stagg believes that schools need to work with typically developing children to educate them about autism and counter “the negative impressions that can be formed through a moment’s contact.”

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