Anyone who’s ever turned on their television has already been influenced by autism stereotypes. From Rain Man to Sheldon Cooper to Dr. House, for whatever reason, writers seem to pick the same few autism symptoms, magnify them, and then use them as their character’s only defining traits. It’s infuriating. Because the majority of people know what little they know about autism from TV and movies, and if all the autistic characters they’re exposed to are basically the same, then it makes sense that they’ll assume that all autistic people are the same. That these fictional characters claim to represent all of us. And I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I’m not ok with the way that I’m being represented.
They say if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.
Stereotypes exist for a reason. It’s easier for our brains to group things together to make them easier to understand. I get that. I feel like I’m guilty of it sometimes too though. Am I stereotyping neurotypical people when I use the same scripts on all of them? When I run my Polite-Self Program, am I a bad person for not evaluating people individually? I hope not. I know that it’s impossible to never stereotype anyone, ever, and that some stereotypes are more harmful than others. I believe the majority of autistic stereotypes are harmful not only to autistic individuals and the autistic community but to neurotypical people too, because by making assumptions about us, they miss out on interacting and connecting with us as individuals.
All this being said, I know I fit some autistic stereotypes. It doesn’t really bother me unless people start using it to make assumptions about me. I definitely don’t like that. No one likes that.
So I guess the major question is, when does a common trait turn into a stereotype? I mean the DSM 5 A criterion requires deficits in social communication or interaction. No one’s really going to argue that autistic people have trouble with social stuff. Yet, we don’t appreciate the stereotype that all autistic people are bad at being social. Are socially awkward. Struggle with relationships. I know that I hate it when people mention that I’m good at conversion, so good, in fact, that they’d never have guessed I was autistic! I know enough social rules to know that I shouldn’t reply that that’s not a compliment.
I think my problem with stereotypes like these are that people often pick an autism stereotype, and assign that as an autistic person’s main personality trait. I’d love to see an autistic character who had social deficits but was good at mimicking neurotypical behavior. Watching them figure out scripts, constantly reminding themselves to make eye contact, and collapsing once they are home safe from the exhaustion of it all. That’s the sort of interpretation of stereotypes that interests me!
How about sarcasm? If you believe the media, not a single autistic person in this world understands it. And that is true for some autistic people. Sarcasm is hard because you have to realize the other person is saying the opposite of what they mean, fast enough to be able to pick up on the tone of voice that makes it sarcasm. Most people don’t have to think it out like that, but sarcasm is complicated! Interestingly I’ve also met autistic people like me, who struggle on some level interpreting sarcasm from others, but frequently use sarcasm themselves. Don’t worry, it confuses me too.
I think what I’m trying to say in all of this is that stereotypes suck. And when anyone uses stereotypes to represent a group of people, assumptions are made, feelings are hurt, and everyone loses out. I’m not trying to argue that all groups have something that equates to an (almost) universal experience. That’s what a group is. But I think that framing it as commonalities instead of absolutes helps people see similarities between themselves and others, and facilitates connections. Which, by the way, we can make, regardless of what the media has told you, I think that no matter what minority group a person belongs too, it should be a Right for all of us to be positively represented in our communities and in media.
So writers, directors, producers, get on it. Learn about autism from autistic people. Listen to what we want to see, and let us help you get it right. We’ve been waiting. We’re still waiting. We’re ready. Are you?