Lost in Translation?: Personal material culture and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Overview

We analysed in depth the personal possessions and student rooms of 45 neuro-typical students at University and 5 individuals with diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Within the neuro-typically developing group we analysed Autism Quotient (AQ) scores and created 3 subgroups based on these scores in order to explore the influence of autism symptomatology on the use of personal possessions in student accommodation.  Our initial hypothesis expected a difference in approach to objects and various properties of objects as a function of AQ score: The higher the result on the AQ, the less interest one would have in an object's capacity to act as a reminder of others or for abstract emotional purposes.

Counter to our initial hypothesis, we found that AQ score had very little predictive capacity when considering self-assessment value attributions on a range of everyday objects and a range of measures, including monetary worth, functionality, capacity of the object to act as a reminder of others and capacity of the object to act as a source of comfort. Emotional processing of the comfort or value of objects is not absent in those with autism but nonetheless appears to differ from that of neuro-typically developing people in subtle ways.

For example rather than a small number of particularly moving photographs, those high on the AQ score often had many photographs. This suggestion would fit with anthropological perspectives on autistic sociality as ‘social but different’.  This research has established a new research network exploring links between the departments of archaeology and psychology/psychiatry. This is already yielding several new research ideas aimed at helping us to better understand the role of anthropology, archaeology and evolution in gaining insights into psychological development in for example individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

In detail

This project set out, via a cohort study, to test the hypothesis that individuals with and without Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have a different relationship with their surroundings and material possessions. The ambition was to explain how this difference arises from distinct key processes structuring the relationship. It was anticipated that for individuals with ASD the social/emotional meaning of personal possessions is ‘lost in translation’. 

An analysis was undertaken of the personal possessions of five individuals with diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and those of 45 individuals representing three sub-groups of the neurotypical population, as defined by their Autism Quotient (AQ) scores. According to the initial hypothesis, the higher the result on the AQ, the less interest it was expected the individual would have in an object's capacity to act as a reminder of others or as a source of comfort and the more interest that individual would have in aspects such as functionality and efficiency. It was found however that AQ score had very little predictive capacity when considering self-assessment value attributions on a range of everyday objects. Nevertheless there were some indications that objects provide comfort in a different way for those high on the AQ score than those in the middle or lower range. For example rather than a small number of particularly moving photographs, it appeared from initial observations that those high on the AQ score may have many photographs providing reassurance of a large support network rather than a specific feeling of comfort from remembering one person or event. This suggestion would fit with anthropological perspectives on autistic sociality as ‘social but different’. 

Another interesting finding was that for certain individuals comforting objects provided comfort at a distance, for example much loved teddy bears were often left at home where they were ‘safe’ yet might still provide comfort. The university setting itself was seen as potentially dangerous for deeply meaningful objects compared to the familiar surroundings at home. This suggests that comfort could be provided from things through the memories that they prompt either if they were physically present (within the room) or could be recalled with confidence (the teddy left on their bed). One conclusion from this would be that while objects may be central to creating feelings of well-being and comfort, they may not be essential for maintaining them. If true, this may have implications for understanding how children ‘grow out of’ certain childhood objects.

The infrastructure has been developed to recruit additional individuals through the University's Disability Services using the ‘psychology participant panel’ (PPP), where people can register their interest in taking part in psychological studies. This panel now has over 50 students registered and will be a resource to facilitate recruitment of participants for research into a range of disorders. 
The project leaders are also in discussions with the University's Disability Services to try and improve the university experience for those with ASD for those staying in university accommodation.

The project has resulted in the setting up of a new research network including the Departments of Archaeology and Psychology, Lime Trees Child and Adolescent Mental Health Institute, Full Sutton Prison and the University of York Clinical Trials Unit. On the strength of approach and results demonstrated, funds are being sought to continue research into self-compassion and objects within other environments beyond the university setting, including prisons, hospitals and care homes.

Principal Investigator

Dr Penny Spikins
Department of Archaeology
penny.spikins@york.ac.uk

Co-Investigators

Dr Katie Slocombe
Department of Psychology

Professor Barry Wright
HYMS/Department of Health Sciences