A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Summer, 2020 | Number 3, Volume 34

Social emails of individuals with ASD are atypical

In a letter to the journal Molecular Autism, researchers say that emails sent by people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) indicate that electronic social communication in these individuals is atypical in ways similar to face-to-face social communication. 

The authors note, “When scheduling research assessments, we consistently notice an atypical social-communicative style in emails from adults with [ASD] compared to non-autistic participants.” 

“Importantly,” they note, “our e-mails sent to autistic and non-autistic adults (e.g., inviting them to participate in a study) are identical; therefore, the groups are broadly age-, gender-, and IQ-matched for the labbased studies in which they were invited to participate. In addition, our e-mails were neither designed nor structured to elicit a response for formal analysis. Together, this has created a controlled, yet naturalistic, situation for us to compare electronic social communication in adults with and without [ASD].” 

The researchers say emails from individuals with ASD typically differ from emails from neurotypical individuals in these ways: 

• They have “a noticeable lack of social niceties and preamble,” yet are equally polite. 

• They pay considerable attention to detail, including correcting grammatical errors made by the researchers. 

• They communicate precise but unconventional information about times and locations (for instance, saying they will arrive at 14:08 or using map coordinates to describe locations). 

The researchers add that their university students with ASD say they experience significant difficulties in writing socially-related emails, and often misinterpret messages, or are themselves misinterpreted. They also are more likely to fail to respond to emails due to the difficulty in filtering out unimportant information. 

The researchers say that based on their observations, “we tentatively propose that atypical electronic social-communicative behavior in autism is in line with many of the social-communicative features of [ASD] observed during social interactions in everyday life.” They suggest that research into the electronic communications of individuals with ASD could provide new ways to help identify ASD (for instance, by measuring atypical electronic as well as in-person social communication) and could lead to strategies to help people with ASD and their neurotypical peers communicate more effectively.


“Electronic communication in autism spectrum conditions,” Lucy Anne Livingston, Chris Ashwin, and Punit Shah, Molecular Autism, 2020 (free online). Address: Lucy Anne Livingston, School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK, [email protected].