All people with autism find it difficult to relate to, and communicate with, other people. People with autism usually find change difficult, and often develop intense interests, routines and obsessions. These characteristics are part of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum conditions. What the criteria does not do is specify what an individual with autism will or will not be interested in. In short the criteria do not specify one type of autistic expression. This is because every autistic person is an individual with a unique personality. No two autistic people will be the same. Unfortunately, though, a plethora of stereotypes have grown up around autism. The three most prevalent are firstly that autistic people are great with computers and maths, secondly that they are not interested in people, and consequently that they exhibit obvious, socially avoidant behaviour . In short, autism is portrayed as an obvious difference that can be detected straight away. In this article I will briefly outline three pernicious effects of these stereotypes on real autistic people, myself included.
The first problem with autism stereotypes is that they silence the many autistic people who do not conform to the simplistic, black and white portrayal of what autism looks like. For example, although it is true that many people with autism are drawn to computers and maths because of the structure and predictability that are intrinsic to these subjects, there are just as many autistic people who have no interest in these subjects at all. I have no interest in technology or maths, as well as having dyscalculia which means that I struggle to understand numbers and spatial relationships. All of my interests involve people, ideas, and culture. I am fascinated by philosophy and the humanities. As a teenager I was obsessed with the actress Kate Winslet and child development. Unfortunately, one of the reasons why I was not diagnosed until I was 21 years old is probably because I have never had any ‘geeky’ interests. My interests were kept very private, and only my close family had to endure long monologues about Kate Winslet.
The second problem is that stereotypes remove a person’s individuality. Consequently an individual’s unique needs and abilities can be overlooked. For example, contrary to the stereotype, many autistic people are very socially interested. They might crave human contact and friendship, but really struggle to connect with others on an instinctive level. Therefore, they might spend a lot of time observing other people or reading books about how to behave in a socially acceptable manner. Given enough time, they might become quite good at being social. They might have learnt how to do basic small talk, and they might try very hard to make eye contact. This might create the impression that they have overcome their social difficulties, when this could not be further from the truth. What is often hidden from view is the amount of effort this social mimicry involves, because the person with autism has to consciously work out every social rule. This means that socialising is seldom a relaxing activity. Even if it appears superficially that the person is coping, the person with autism can feel very lonely and isolated because they are all too aware that a genuine connection with others is often beyond their reach. Unfortunately, other people, meaning well, might tell the autistic person that they must be ‘mild’ or ‘can’t be that autistic’. These comments, which are based on the idea that autism invariably involves social disinterest, are hurtful because they diminish the individual’s painful lived experience as an autistic person. Autism is not a sliding scale or singular entity that runs from ‘mild’ to ‘severe’. Instead autism is a constellation of different syndromes that are unique in individual expression. There is no such thing as ‘mild’ autism. Each person with autism has their own set of unique challenges, strengths, and coping strategies. Mimicking social behaviour is one such coping strategy that I have learnt very well, despite the fact that socialising is incredibly tiring and stressful. If other people assume that my autism is ‘mild’ just because I am not behaving inappropriately, they might overestimate my capabilities. Therefore they might attribute the occasional social faus pas to deliberate intention or laziness instead of the inevitable outcome of a neurological disability.
The third negative outcome of autism stereotypes that follows on from the above is that it overlooks the invisible nature of autism. What I mean by this is that, unlike disabilities such as cerebral palsy, you cannot always tell that someone is autistic. This is particularly the case for autistic people who do not conform to the stereotype. Would you ever guess that the softly spoken girl at work, who takes an interest in your weekend and loves talking about people, was autistic? It is possible that she might come across as slightly anxious and dreamy. But unless you spent a lot of time with her, you might not notice any obvious sign of disability. If she gets things repeatedly wrong at work, and needs a lot of reminders and supervision, you might wonder what the reasons are for her slowness. You probably won’t consider the possibility that she could be autistic. I mention this hypothetical situation with the hope that it will encourage you to look beyond the stereotype. Autism is not always obvious. It can be well hidden. And this is precisely why many individuals with autism struggle in silence, and develop mental health problems such as depression and post traumatic stress disorder.
I hope that this brief outline of why stereotypes can be harmful will encourage you to not make assumptions about autistic people. Always start with the individual, and avoid jumping to conclusions. Autism can be expressed in an infinite number of different ways. No two people with autism are the same.