The Impact of Contact and Personality Traits on Attitudes Toward Individuals with Autism and Other Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Thursday, May 15, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
J. DeSanctis, L. Bennetto and R. D. Rogge, Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY
Background: Changes in inclusive education and workplace integration have created a community that allows for more exposure and interaction between the general population and those with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). With an increasing population of people with disabilities aging into adulthood, it is especially important to understand the impact of exposure and opportunities for interactions on attitudes toward these individuals, as the benefits of integration can often be attenuated by residual prejudice and discrimination. Previous studies have found that increased exposure can lead to more positive feelings toward those with IDD (Manetti, Schneider, & Siperstein, 2001; Piercy, Wilton, & Townsend, 2002). In other areas, studies examining quantity and quality of contact separately found that these two forms of contact may affect attitudes toward other groups in distinct ways (Voci & Hewstone, 2007; Islam & Hewstone, 1993). Additionally, studies have looked at personality dimensions as predictors of negative attitudes toward various minority groups, often finding that Agreeableness, Openness to Experience, and Social Dominance Orientation are related to attitudes (Sibley & Duckitt, 2008; Cohrs, Kämpfe-Hargrave, & Riemann, 2012).  

Objectives: The current study further investigated attitudes by examining person by environment interactions between individual traits and types of contact with individuals with IDDs. We hoped to gain a better understanding of this relationship and to differentiate the effects of quality and quantity of contact when specifically considering lifetime exposure to people with an ASD or other IDDs. Better knowledge of this relationship will increase our understanding of possible barriers to inclusion and identify opportunities for program improvements. 

Methods: In the present study, 550 adults completed a survey that measured their level of quantity and quality of contact with individuals with IDD across their lifetime, personality factors, and their current attitudes. Our measure of attitudes captured feelings of exclusion, sheltering, and empowerment toward individuals with IDDs. The current study focused on exposure to individuals with IDDs broadly, as earlier diagnostic trends would likely influence adults’ ability to differentiate between autism and other IDDs when recalling lifetime exposure.   

Results: Multiple regression analyses suggested consistent links between higher quality of contact and lower levels of negative attitudes toward individuals with IDD (exclusion: β= -.332, p<001; empowerment: β=.391, p<001).  The analyses further revealed significant person by environment interactions in shaping attitudes, and found that both agreeableness and social dominance moderated the impact of quality and quantity of contact on attitudes. Specifically, quality of contact was particularly beneficially associated with attitudes for people low on agreeableness or social dominance. In contrast, quantity of contact was detrimentally associated with attitudes for individuals high on social dominance.

Conclusions: These results suggest that mere exposure is not beneficial in decreasing negative attitudes and that contact that is meaningful and cooperative is related to more positive attitudes; this is especially important for individuals with certain personality traits.  Recognizing the importance of quality of contact may be especially significant when designing and implementing inclusive opportunities for individuals with autism in our schools and general community.

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