We hear a lot about “positive thinking” and how our positive thoughts influence our overall wellbeing and even heal our bodies. However, we don’t seem hear as much about the effects that our thoughts may have on others. In fact, our thoughts are so powerful that we need to treat them as weapons, capable of inflicting serious damage. The thoughts that you have about others, the thoughts about how they should act, how they should look, what they should do, what types of futures they should strive to achieve – the thoughts that you have about individuals on the autism spectrum can kill their hopes, dreams, and future potential.

Internal Expectancy Effects

Certainly, we have known about the power of expectancy effects since the 1700’s since the first placebo study was published. Indeed, a myriad of research has been reported of internal expectancy effects, including placebo studies ranging from psychological to physical changes.

External Expectancy Effects

To be fair, we have also been made aware of external expectancy effects as well. In the 1960’s Professor Bob Rosenthal conducted a series of studies to test his hypothesis (Rosenthal & Fode, 1963). Without informing anyone else in his laboratory, he labeled the cages of the rats as being either “maze dull” or “maze bright.” His research assistants cared for both sets of rats without knowledge of the research paradigm, and they continued to feed, exercise, and monitor both sets of rats according to the research protocol. Although both sets of rats were standard lab rats, on the day of the maze run, the rats labeled as “maze bright” outperformed all of the other rats! How could this happen? The rats were identical in every way. Could it be that without even realizing it, the assistants treated the rats differently? Perhaps, feeding them a bit more, holding them a little longer, speaking to them positively? The researchers suggested that the assistants influenced the performance of the rats on a subconscious level.

Professor Rosenthal then tested his theory of expectancy effects in the classroom. After conducting a series of cognitive tests on all of the students, he chose students at random and informed the classroom teacher that these particular students were in fact, “academic bloomers” and that the teachers should expect great things from their performance over the course of the year. The teachers expected great things, and the students exceeded their expectations. This phenomenon of expectancy effects is powerful.

Expectancy effects are powerful because they can bring about change: positive and negative.

Last year Dr. Cherng from NYU Steinhardt’s School of Education published her findings of teacher’s expectation of academic success of students of color. She found that not only did the teacher’s expectations affect the student’s academic performance, especially in science and math, but she said one the most significant findings was that “the teacher’s underestimation of the student’s abilities caused the students to actually have lower expectations of themselves.”

As a speech pathologist working in the public school system, I encountered one of the most brazen expectations of a student’s potential from a teacher in the special needs classroom. As I entered the classroom to provide therapy to a young student on the autism spectrum who was not communicating verbally, he asked me, “Why are you working with him? You would have better luck talking to a tree.” To me, this teacher is no different than a killer, because he was in the position to kill any future potential for this student.


The research in expectancy effects coupled with the knowledge that we have gained in the last decade in neuroscience provides insight into the neurological and functional outcomes of adults on the spectrum. Although we know that there is a strong genetic component in autism, the environment also plays a critical role in how our genes are expressed, and how the brain responds to the input of the environment.

Have you heard the phrase, neurons that fire together, wire together? One of the most amazing features of the human brain is its ability to change and adapt to these new experiences in the world around us. The brain regions that are activated simultaneously begin to create new connections between one another, and then new synapses are formed to increase the strength of the connection of these brain regions. When neurons fire in synchrony, they change the synaptic organization and change our brains.

Neurotransmitters carry signals across the synaptic cleft that provide information to our bodies about how to respond not only to situations but also to our thoughts. Every thought that we have produces a change in our neurochemistry. For better or for worse, they produce neurotransmitters that course throughout our bodies. We can have a surge of ‘positive’ neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine) when we do a good deed for example, or a surge of cortisol when someone is criticizing us.

Over the last decade, we have learned about differences in synaptic pruning in the brains of individuals on the spectrum, and some areas of the brain have increased synaptic connections while other regions have fewer of these connections. We are still learning more about how this process unfolds, but it is imperative to provide an environment with meaningful opportunities that are in line with their abilities, talents, and areas of interest.

Professor La Doux states, “Synapses are involved in every thought that we have. Every emotion. Every experience. Learning and development are two sides of the same coin. We can’t learn until we have synapses. And as soon as synapses start forming on the basis of intrinsic commands, they are subject to being influenced by our worldly experiences.” 


Our thoughts about what individuals on the spectrum can achieve influence our behavior – body language, even the types of jobs they are offered, and the kinds of futures that we believe that they can achieve.

In turn, these individuals begin to internalize others expectations of themselves (based on the research that we have learned about external expectancy effects). And it doesn’t take long before they believe that they cannot achieve (recall the findings of the student’s beliefs of Dr. Cherng’s research from NYU), and the thoughts that they have about themselves and the lost opportunities and experiences reorganize their brain in response (neuroscience and synaptic pruning).

Thoughts can change our brains. But we need to carefully consider our thoughts and expectations about others because we hold their future synapses in our hands. This is powerful, and the realization of the importance of our responsibility to the outcomes of adults on the spectrum is sobering. We all have to keep our expectations at the forefront of our minds when meeting individuals who share their ideas, hopes, and dreams with us. If we are not careful, we could kill their future potential, and this is a crime.

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Heidi Ham

Heidi Ham

Social entrepreneur, CEO and Founder of Spectrum Fusion, a non-profit organization dedicated to making the world a better place for adults on the spectrum.

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