A Cross Cultural Examination of Blatant and Subtle Dehumanization of Autistic People



Autistic people often face stigma and discrimination from non-autistic people, who may view them as less human than themselves. But how does this dehumanization vary across different cultures? A recent study by Kim, Cheon, and Kim (2024) examined this question by comparing the attitudes of Koreans and Americans towards autistic people.


What is Dehumanization?


Dehumanization is the process of denying or reducing the humanness of a group of people, often based on their perceived differences from the dominant group. Dehumanization can take various forms, such as:

  • Blatant dehumanization: Viewing a group as animal-like, child-like, or machine-like, implying that they lack intelligence, morality, or emotions.
  • Subtle dehumanization: Denying a group’s agency (the ability to act independently and make choices) or experience (the ability to feel emotions and sensations).

Dehumanization can have negative consequences for the dehumanized group, such as reducing their self-esteem, increasing their stress, and impairing their social interactions. Dehumanization can also justify the exclusion, exploitation, or violence against the dehumanized group by the dehumanizers.


How Did the Researchers Measure Dehumanization?


The researchers conducted an online survey with 404 Koreans and 229 Americans, who were asked to rate autistic and non-autistic people on various scales of dehumanization, such as:

  • Animal-like: How much they resemble animals or humans in terms of appearance, behavior, and cognition.
  • Child-like: How much they resemble children or adults in terms of maturity, competence, and responsibility.
  • Machine-like: How much they resemble machines or humans in terms of emotionality, sociability, and creativity.
  • Agency: How much they have free will, self-control, and intentionality.
  • Experience: How much they have feelings, sensations, and awareness.

The participants also answered questions about their knowledge about autism, stigma toward and contact with autistic people, cultural factors, and demographic information.


What Did the Researchers Find?


The researchers found that both Koreans and Americans dehumanized autistic people more than non-autistic people across all domains, except for the machine-like domain, where there was no significant difference. However, Koreans showed greater dehumanization of autistic people than Americans in all domains except for the machine-like domain, where Americans showed greater dehumanization.

The researchers also found that stigma toward autistic people was associated with all domains of dehumanization among Koreans and with some of the domains among Americans. Other individual variables that were associated with dehumanization varied across countries and domains, such as knowledge about autism, contact quality with autistic people, collectivism, and power distance.


What Are the Implications of the Study?


The study suggests that non-autistic people consistently rate autistic people as less human than non-autistic people, regardless of their culture. However, the degree and the type of dehumanization may differ across cultures, depending on their societal norms and values. The study also suggests that reducing stigma and promoting positive contact with autistic people may help decrease dehumanization.

The study has some limitations, such as relying on self-report measures, using a convenience sample, and not including autistic people’s perspectives. Future research could address these limitations and examine how autistic characteristics or societal perceptions that influence the consideration of an autistic person’s humanness vary across cultures. Future research could also explore the effects of dehumanization on autistic people’s well-being and the interventions that could enhance non-autistic people’s understanding of autistic people’s agency and experience capabilities.

The study contributes to the literature on autism and dehumanization by providing a cross-cultural comparison of various domains of dehumanization. The study also highlights the need for more awareness and respect for the humanness of autistic people in different cultural contexts.



What are the differences between the machine-like and the agency domains of dehumanization?


The machine-like domain of dehumanization refers to viewing autistic people as mechanical, rigid, or cold, while the agency domain of dehumanization refers to denying autistic people the ability to act, plan, and exert self-control. Both domains imply a lack of autonomy and flexibility, but the machine-like domain also implies a lack of warmth and emotion.



How do the authors measure knowledge about autism in this study?


The authors measure knowledge about autism in this study using a 15-item questionnaire adapted from previous studies (Kim et al., 2021; Obeid et al., 2015). The questionnaire assesses factual knowledge about the symptoms, causes, and treatments of autism. The participants are asked to indicate whether each statement is true or false. The total score ranges from 0 to 15, with higher scores indicating greater knowledge.


What are the cultural factors that the authors measured in this study?


The cultural factors that the authors measured in this study are individualism-collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and social dominance orientation. Individualism-collectivism reflects the degree to which people emphasize personal or group goals, power distance reflects the degree to which people accept unequal distribution of power, uncertainty avoidance reflects the degree to which people tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, and social dominance orientation reflects the degree to which people endorse hierarchy and dominance over other groups.


How do the authors explain the cultural differences in dehumanization of autistic people?


The authors explain the cultural differences in dehumanization of autistic people by considering the cultural values and beliefs of Koreans and Americans. They suggest that Koreans may show greater dehumanization of autistic people than Americans because of their higher collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and social dominance orientation, which may lead to more negative attitudes towards people who deviate from the norm or challenge the social order. They also suggest that Americans may show less dehumanization of autistic people than Koreans because of their higher individualism, which may foster more tolerance and acceptance of diversity and uniqueness.




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