The Big Picture: Why Context Matters When Assessing Autistic Traits

In February 2017, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, PhD., contributed an article to the PLoS Blog arguing that contemporary practices surrounding autism research are fundamentally lacking in context, leading to a skewed understanding of these traits and the nature and experience of those who possess them. As such, there is a risk to misinterpret cues when assessing autistic traits.

Child in Classroom

Context has to be considered in the assessment of autism as it plays an important role in a person’s preferences and behavior

Context and Personality

Gernsbacher launches her argument from a standpoint with which most psychologists agree: that context plays a pivotal role in any attempt to understand or evaluate personality. For example, a person may not be inherently prone to shyness but may find himself suddenly timid and uncharacteristically quiet in unfamiliar circumstances or when surrounded by strangers. Likewise, someone who is not necessarily assertive by nature may find herself boldly speaking out in defense of someone or something she holds dear. Very often, who, how, and what we are, Gernsbacher argues, is a function of where we are, of who and what we are in the midst of.

Traditional practices in autism research, however, too often ignore the role of context in shaping how so-called “autistic” traits are identified and measured. Such research typically centers upon questions like whether the subject enjoys being around other people or trying new things, but no context is provided to tell the subject what kind of new people and what sort of new things.

However, psychological research has shown that humans gravitate toward those who are most like them, those with whom they feel they have something in common, and those activities in which they have some measure of interest or familiarity, even if the activity itself is new to them.

Lack of Context Skews Assessments

Gernsbacher argues that the lack of context in this research often skews toward the perspective of a non-autistic person, meaning that an autistic individual is likely to score higher on such assessments and a non-autistic person is likely to score lower than is accurate. This is because the verbiage of such research—and even the environment in which such research is conducted—is often presented in a way that suggests or implies that “new people” means “non-autistic” people and “new things” connotes activities that those on the spectrum may find discomfiting.

In addition, Gernsbacher notes the importance of identifying the reference group to which any study relates, asserting that the only meaningful assessment of personality is in relation to other individuals or groups. Thus, millennials may consider themselves tech-savvy only when compared to their parents’ or grandparents’ age group; married couples may consider themselves secure about their future only when compared with single adults; new university graduates may feel optimistic about their career prospects only in comparison to recent high school dropouts.

Autism Assessment is Sensitive to Context

Thus, for Gernsbacher, prevailing research methods, with their default of the “non-autistic” person as the standard, do not, in fact, assess autistic traits as they purport to do, but instead merely confirm what is already expected. However, effective autism research, the author suggests, must be highly sensitive to context, recognizing that human beings do not live in isolation, that personality does not function in a vacuum. It is shaped not just by who we are, but by who we are with, what we are doing, in what environment, and amid which circumstances. Only then will autism research truly fulfill its purpose—serving the individual, not the diagnosis.


Gernsbacher, M.A. (14 February 2017). Researcher ‘first person’: Why context matters in assessing autistic traits. PLoS Blogs. Retrieved from

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