C2D2 research 1b - Lost in Translation?: Personal material culture and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Project: Other projectOther internal award

Project Details

Layman's description

This project aims, 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. It will seek to explain how this difference arises from distinct key processes structuring the relationship. The anticipation is that for individuals with ASD the social/emotional meaning of personal possessions are being ‘lost in translation’. The results of the study will be important to both arts and science research areas.

Key findings

We analysed the personal possessions of 5 individuals with diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the personal possessions and student rooms, of 45 individuals representing 3 sub-groups of the neurotypical population, as defined by their Autism Quotidian (AQ) scores.. 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 objects capacity to act as a reminder of others or as a source of comfort and the more interest one would have in aspects such as functionality and efficiency.

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 neurotypically developing people in subtle ways.

Alongside our primary mode of analysis, that of AQ, we assessed participants for personality and self-compassion to assess the impact that broader aspects of each individual may have on their relationships to material culture. Though the relationships are weak, both of these measures proved to be a stronger basis for predicting relationships and attitudes to material culture than did AQ. This points to ones relationships to objects having a complex and diverse basis, being affected by a multitude of factors.

We would particularly like to explore the possibility 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 appears from initial observation that those high on the AQ score may have many photographs (ie 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’.

There were also a number of other interesting potential patterns which would need further research to fully elucidate. When comforting objects existed they sometimes provided comfort at a distance and weren’t in the student room, for example much loved teddy bears were often left at home where they were ‘safe’ yet might still be provide comfort. The university setting itself is seen as potentially dangerous for deeply meaningful objects (a proxy for non-financial value). Objects are thought to be more vulnerable to theft or damage and so are left in the safety of 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 recalled with confidence that the imagined image would be correct (the teddy would have been left on their bed). This may suggest that the psychological association between object and feelings of well-being or comfort can become dissociated in physical space without any negative repercussion for that feeling and linkage. While objects may be central to creating feelings of well-being and comfort, hey may not be essential for maintaining them. This may have implications for understanding how children ‘grow out of’ certain childhood objects, for example.

Based on these results, we anticipate at least two academic papers: the first will focus on quantitative analyses and will be submitted to Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. The second will incorporate additional qualitative research, with journal of submission to be considered.

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.


We have set up a new research network including Barry Wright (HYMS and Lime Trees Child and Adolescent Mental Health Institute), Cathy Wordie (material objects in prison settings, preliminary discussions re research at Full Sutton) and Paul Dempster (University of York Clinical Trials Unit, material objects in nursing homes) and will be applying for funds to expand this project to include personal possessions in hospitals and in prisons. We have established new research links between the departments of archaeology and psychology that builds on the aims of PALAEO, a broader multi-disciplinary research group which incorporates multiple departments.

To offer a flavour of the nature of this collaborative group, our last meeting discussed the possibility of submitting a research application considering the use of objects within a prison setting, one of our target institutions. Part of prison experience involves a deliberate reduction in comfort through objects, as evidenced by a spatially restricted box to hold all personal possessions for the duration of the sentence. Additionally, these objects cannot be truly private and are subject to searches. These practices raise questions about the emotional impact of the institution and the balance between punishment and rehabilitation. A study in this setting would focus on trying to establish whether additional control over personal possessions could instil some measure of citizenship and investment within the prison population and increase the likelihood of rehabilitation. We would additionally, aim to explore the mobility of personal possessions in prison settings, these goods often being used in trade between inmates, and how relationships between perfect strangers can be fostered and maintained through the flow of objects. Research would focus on whether this specific mode of social engagement can be harnessed toward a rehabilitative agenda, increasing the levels of positive sociality and inter-personal appreciation as made manifest by the need to co-operate in trade. We plan to apply to ESRC for this research.

We have developed the infrastructure to recruit additional individuals through disability services using the ‘psychology participant panel’ (PPP), where people can register their interest in taking part in psychological studies, along with the nature of the condition they have. 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.

We are in the process of organising outlets for the research. At the time of writing, we plan to discuss the research on Radio York, drive time. Once academic publication have been completed this is an area we can explore more fully.

We have commenced a dialogue with disability services, partly based on the continued use of the PPP and now with mind to try and improve the university experience for those with ASD for those staying in university accommodation.

In order to collect more evidence to explore the relationship between autism and material culture more fully we set up a new project (The Material Culture of ASC), with an online survey (currently with over 450 valid responses). We are currently (July 2015) still in the process of collecting responses, after which we intend to publish the results of the C2D2 Project in association with this second project.

Penny Spikins (Archaeology), Katie Slocombe (Psychology), Andrew Needham (Archaeology), Stephanie Burchill (Pyschology)

Two researchers were employed on this project, one for three months and the other for four months. Part of our aim was to draw in students who had the requisite skills within their own academic field to attain our data but who would benefit from interdisciplinary engagement within their own career. We therefore employed early career researchers, both of whom have gone on to attain funded PhD places (commencing December 2012 and October 2013 respectively) .


in progress

A component of the data was submitted for publication within 'Two Minds are Better Than One? Autism in evolutionary context', submitted to Cambridge Archaeological Journal. We have been asked to revise to within the word length (12,000 words) and re-submit.

Effective start/end date1/07/1231/03/13


  • GN Anthropology
  • autism
  • sociality
  • material culture
  • BF Psychology
  • autism
  • material culture