Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, asked 224 college students to read three vignettes describing social situations on campus. The main character in each story was a college student who behaved in ways characteristic of an individual with autism. This included narrow interests and difficulties with social communication.
The investigators told some of the participants that the young man in the story had autism. Others were told that he was a typical college student. Still others weren’t given any label.
The investigators then used a questionnaire designed to assess attitudes toward persons with disabilities. It included three sets of questions on the students’ thoughts and feelings toward the young man in the stories. One set of questions measured agreement with statements like “We might get along really well.” Another set of questions asked the participants to rate the likelihood that they would “find an excuse” to leave or avoid the young man. A third set of questions gauged the participants’ emotional responses (e.g. nervousness, fear, etc.) to the fictional character.
On the first two measures, students who were told that the young man had autism responded significantly more positively toward him than did the students who weren’t given a label. In other words, they expressed more interest in spending time or becoming friends with him.