4 Autism Stereotypes I fit and 4 I don’t 

So if you missed my Monday post, let me fill you in. In a one sentence summary, I talked about the harmful effects of stereotypes, and the importance of positive representation. I’m a little biased I suppose, but I think it was a pretty good essay. In writing it, it got me thinking about which autism stereotypes I fit, and which ones are definitely not me. It was actually really interesting. If you’re up for a session of introspective self awareness, I highly suggest it!

Do Fit:

1. Autistic people can’t live independently: The last time I lived alone was my first semester of college, all the way back in 2005. To say that it went badly was an understatement. I spend most of my time hiding under my bed, I forgot to eat, and I had to drop a class because I just plain couldn’t find it. Thank goodness I met my wife that first semester. Even when we were just dating, she had an innate talent for recognizing how she could assist me. She’s been called my interpreter to the world, and I think that’s one hundred percent accurate. But still, my caseworker has advised her not to leave me alone for more than 24 hours. If everything went exactly to plan, I’d be fine, but if something went wrong, if my routine was messed with, we can could end up in a position where I forget to eat or go to the bathroom. I’m working on independence in Occupational Therapy, but right now, it’s not my strong suit.

2. Autistic people sit in corners and rock: Ok, so it’s not always in a corner, but I am totally a rocker. Interestingly, I have different rocks for different things. If I’m rocking side to side, there’s no need to worry, because it usually means I’m just bored. If I’m rocking front to back though, that’s problematic. It means I’m overstimulated or that I’m about to melt down. Luckily, there’s are several people who can interpret my rocks and intervene if necessary.

3. Autistic people connect more to animals/object than people: Ask my wife to tell you the story of the time she threw away my shoe-box. It was early in our relationship, and she hadn’t yet experienced all of the autistic quirks that I come with. She threw away the box from my new shoes, and I sobbed. For two hours. I felt so guilty that they might think that I didn’t believe they could live up to their potential. So clearly, I experience hyper empathy with inanimate objects. And it’s not just your standard ‘my stuffed animals have feelings ‘ (they do!), even statues and cardboard boxes have feelings. My favorite street sign’s name is Oliver and I say hi every time I pass him!

4. Autistic people don’t make eye contact: So there are a lot of people who would say that this answer isn’t accurate. That I do make eye contact. In fact, they saw me do it last week, and am I sure I’m really autistic? I know I’d break their tiny little neurotypical hearts if I told them that every time they think I’m making eye contact with them, I’m just staring at the bridge of their nose. This knowledge might destroy their fragile little minds. All this being said, I can make eye contact. But it’s not intuitive, and reminding myself to do it every 10 seconds takes up a lot of energy. It’s also a bit uncomfortable for me, so I only really do it with people I know really well. Since they know me as well as I know them, they don’t find the sporadic eye contact weird. They’re just happy that it’s genuine.

Don’t fit:

1. Autistic people don’t have friends: I considered myself very lucky because I’ve never experienced bullying. Or if I have, I didn’t realize that’s what it was. This is a viable option, I’m not the most observant when it comes to social stuff. But as unaware as I am about socializing, I have always had friends. Granted, I’ve never been the one to start the friendship. The pattern in my life has been, an outgoing and extroverted person decides they want to be friends with me, and initiated contact frequently enough that eventually it becomes part of my routine, and a friendship forms. On top of being extroverted, many of these people have a talent that I wish more people had- the ability to accept that my social skills are atypical and my connections hard won, but they are still good. It may be difficult to be my friend sometimes, but there are upsides too.

2. Autistic people are savants/intellectually disabled: For whatever reason, people have a tendency to think that autistic people have either very high IQs, or very low IQs. The idea of an average autistic is almost as much of a white whale as the idea of an autistic adult. This sort of makes sense to me. Autistic people are only of interest if there’s something different about them. Which is totally unfair to those of who haven’t been given the Hollywood treatment. Autistic savants are rare, and are not even a little bit like the one’s shown in movies like Rain Man. And intellectual disabilities have been separated from developmental ones for decades now. Essentially, some people do have both, but a majority only have one or the other. I test well (the tests are mostly puzzles, and I love puzzles!), but my IQ doesn’t measure my social abilities, my ability to live independently, or my mental health. This is a problem that diagnostic professional are still working on, but since we won’t get any new changes until the DSM-6 comes out, we’ll just have to advocate for ourselves.

3. Autistic people have no sense of humor: In my opinion, very few autistic people fit this stereotype. Even if someone’s humor isn’t exactly your standard fair, it’s still considered humor! That people said, some types of humor are more accessible than others. Sarcasm can be hard for some people, not just autistic people either! It require tracking and recognizing a lot of different communication queues, which takes time. There’s definitely been times where I realized something was sarcasm 15 minutes after the fact; it took me that long to put it all together. I definitely use humor in my day to day communication. It often makes more sense to me than small talk and other types of interaction. Not to mention, making someone laugh is a really good feeling! Especially with people I know really well, being able to target their sense of humor makes me feel connected.

4. Autistic people are suffering- I am not suffering. No matter what certain organizations would lead you to believe. Are that parts of autism that are painful? Yes. Frustrating? Double Yes. Confusing? Triple Yes. But those aren’t autism things, those are life things. And when I say these things, there are always people who will pop and and say “Well you don’t count. You’re not one of THOSE people with autism (note the use of person first language. Ugh.) You’re not one of those poor souls who can’t speak or communicate of wipe their ass or love their poor suffering parents. They think this because they’re not looking at this from a neurodiverse viewpoint. Speaking is not the only way of communicating, and I can only speak from my own experience, but when I need assistance with things, it doesn’t feel like suffering. It’s just the way things are. Some autistic people may feel like they’re suffering. And that is their experience, and it’s a thousand percent valid. But I’ve been the way I am for 29 years, and my life is my life. It has its ups and downs. And downs don’t necessarily mean suffering. At least not for me.

 

Being Represented

 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. Its 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 criteria 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 complement.

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 similaries 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?