The "Uncanny Valley" Is a Lonely Place
Understanding the "uncanny valley" effect can help people living with autism.
Posted November 29, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- The "uncanny valley effect" is a way to understand people’s reactions to "hidden" or "masked" autism and how "coming out" helps.
- When people do not know someone is diagnosed with autism, they may react to atypical behaviors with discomfort or even revulsion.
- Telling people one has autism can help them understand, accept, and even respect one's neurodevelopmental differences.
A young adult diagnosed with autism recently told me about how they are aware that, when interacting with peers and striving to act neurotypically, and even seemingly doing this well (they are an accepted member of a club and work effectively with colleagues), they sometimes "creep people out." Since one of their interests is video gaming, my response included talking about the "uncanny valley effect."
The Uncanny Valley Effect
The "uncanny valley effect" is a term used by those who build robots, make animated movies, or design video games. It describes how people find human-like robots and animated humans more appealing the more human they appear—until they do not. When robots or animations appear almost but not quite real, when there is a narrow chasm between their seeming almost human and human, they can evoke feelings of unease, strangeness, and even "creepiness."
The animated movie "Shrek" provides an example. An early version of Princess Fiona elicited anxiety in children during test screenings. The Fiona animation appeared very lifelike—but not lifelike enough—and some children even cried when it was on screen. Princess Fiona was made less lifelike—more clearly animated—for the final version of "Shrek," which was and is a hit.
One way to think of the "uncanny valley" effect is that almost but not quite lifelike robots or animations are not judged as a robot or animation doing a passable job of acting human, but instead as a human doing a poor, even disconcerting, job of acting like a typical human. People act as if they don’t know they are viewing or interacting with an animation.
‘Coming Out’ as Neurodevelopmentally Atypical
After introducing the concept of the "uncanny valley effect" to the young adult diagnosed with autism who said he was "creeping people out," I suggested that sometimes they may not be seen as a neuro-atypical person doing a pretty good job of acting typically, but instead as a neurotypical person behaving in atypical (strange or even "creepy") ways. That is when they said “the uncanny valley is a lonely place”—touching my heart and prompting me to write this post.
I asked them if they told their peers they were diagnosed with autism, and they said no. I invited them to experiment with, rather than or in addition to striving to act typically (but frequently falling just short), telling people they are diagnosed with autism—in other words, "on the spectrum"—and seeing what happens.
This "tell them you have an autism (or ADHD, or a learning disability) diagnosis" approach has been helpful to many people in my therapy practice over the years. I tell them that if people (teachers, peers, employers) don’t know that they/their child are neurodevelopmentally atypical, they may misinterpret atypical behaviors and view them as rude or lazy or stupid. "Coming out" about being neurodevelopmentally atypical makes it more likely these other people will understand, accept, accommodate, and even appreciate them and their differences (weaknesses and strengths).
This approach also fits well with the thinking and recommendations of Devon Price in his book Unmasking Autism. Price lists the many psychological and functional costs of "masking" or hiding an autism diagnosis while striving to act neurotypical. These costs range from shame to cognitive depletion to social isolation and more.
Price provides many examples of how "coming out" and sharing one’s autism diagnosis with others, even embracing it, can help people find and join groups of neuro-atypical peers and even gain acceptance and respect in more typical peer settings. Someone thinking, “Oh, he is on the spectrum” leads to more understanding and acceptance, even respect and appreciation, than someone thinking, “He is a creep.”
Autism Essential Reads
Giving 'Unmasking' or ‘Coming Out as Diagnosed With Autism’ a Try
The young adult I am working with and I, after our "uncanny valley" discussion, developed and role-played a couple of short "coming-out" scripts. They said they would experiment with telling some peers they see regularly that they have been diagnosed with autism—are "on the spectrum." We meet again in a couple of weeks. I look forward to hearing about what happened.
Price, D. (2022). Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity. New York: Harmony Books.