It’s autism acceptance month! To celebrate that, I decided to debunk some autism stereotypes. Because chances are that when you ask a random person on the street to describe someone with autism, they’ll come up with a list of things they’ve seen in popular media. Many of these things are stereotypes however, and I’m here to break them. Do note that some autistic people do fit this stereotype, but this may only be a few percent of all autistic people. We are all completely unique people with a unique combination of autistic traits. Just like neurotypicals (non-autistics) are completely unique. The things I’m listing here are just a few stereotypes that are misunderstood.
Stereotype 1: Autistic people are anti-social
A matter of energy
When people think about someone with autism they often think about a person who’s very reserved and always on their own. They don’t really talk and when they do, they come across as awkward. While this may be true for some of us, it definitely isn’t true for everyone. Here’s the deal with the relationship between autism and being social: it’s complicated. For many autistic people it’s very tiring to be social (me being one of them). We don’t always understand what people want from us or what they mean, because we sometimes struggle picking up body language and emotions. So you can kind of see it as being in class, or in a job interview: you constantly have to pay attention to your surroundings so you can display the right behaviour and give appropriate answers. That’s what makes it tiring for us and that’s what makes us sometimes prefer being alone over being with people. It’s not that we don’t want social interaction, but sometimes we don’t have the energy for it.
The same goes for crowded places or places with many sensory input. We’re prone to getting sensory overload. I always explain it like this: the filter in our head that filters out unimportant sensory input is broken. So everything we hear, see, smell, taste and feel gets processed. This causes our brains to get overloaded and that can be very tiring and even painful. So if you see us sitting by ourselves in a crowded place, it’s not that we necessarily want to be alone. It’s that we’re trying to protect ourselves from getting even more sensory input.
No time for small-talk
Another thing people associate with being anti-social is the inability to hold up a conversation. But here’s what neurotypicals don’t understand: we don’t care about small-talk. Most of us don’t, at least. So of course the conversation is going to be awkward or feel scripted, because small-talk is not within our interests. If you see me engage in small-talk and then see me talk about my interests, you’ll definitely notice the difference. If you want to have a good conversation with us, try and find out what we find interesting. For example, I love talking about spirituality, the meaning of life, space and weird concepts. I also love talking about geeky things and norse mythology. I can talk about those things for hours on end and it will make you realise that I’m not as anti-social as you think. It’s really just a matter of engaging with us in a way we understand. That doesn’t matter you can’t ask us how we are or that we will only talk and not listen. It just means that if you want to keep the conversation going you should avoid the conversation being only small talk.
Because of these factors people sometimes think we’re being rude when we decline social interactions or gatherings, or when we interpreted something the wrong way. But as you can see, it’s not that we’re anti-social per se or that we’re trying to be rude. It’s just that we experience the world around us in a different way and thus communicate a little bit differently.
Stereotype 2: Autistic people have weird hobbies and interests
Autistic people often have what is called a “special interest”. This is an interest in something that is borderline obsessive and that the person knows everything about (but not always!). My special interests are Norse mythology and the fictional Marvel character David Haller aka Legion. Some of my smaller interests are folklore and space.
Special interests can get very specific, but some stereotypical interests that are associated with autism are trains, space and dinosaurs. While the latter was one of my interests as a kid, and space still is one, not every autistic person has these special interests. Calling them weird won’t really help either. Special interests are cool and unique and I love asking fellow autistics about theirs and listen to them speak about it with such intensity. So while the stereotype is somewhat true, it’s not something that is weird. And it’s also not something that should define us. Ask us about our special interests, it’s fun!
Stereotype 3: Autistic people don’t like to be touched and don’t like loud noise
As mentioned before, our sensory filter isn’t really working the way it should. This can mean that we find it very difficult to handle sensory input like light, touch and sound. While some autistic people don’t like to be touched at all, definitely not all of us are like that. I personally love hugs. I love holding hands and I sometimes play poking games with my family. I’m not really sensitive to clothes (some autistic people don’t like wearing certain clothes because of how it feels on their skin) nor do I mind touching certain surfaces. In fact, I love touching things to experience their structure.
What I do dislike though is loud noise. I hate vacuum cleaning because the noise is too loud. I hate fireworks and I hate it when I drop something on the floor and it makes a loud noise (and unfortunately for me I drop things a lot). However I know other autistic people who aren’t bothered by loud noise at all. So while I can see where the stereotype came from, it’s definitely not true for all of us.
If you want to know more about autism and sensory input and how we relieve ourselves of sensory overload through stimming, watch this video by Agony Autie.
Stereotype 4: Autistic people have a special ability
Autistic characters such as in Rain Man or The Good Doctor are often played as so called autistic savants. A savant is a person with autism that has an extraordinary ability, which is almost superhuman. While this does happen, it’s only about 1% of all autistic people who are actual savants. This causes neurotypicals to sometimes have unrealistic expectations for us that we can’t meet. People think of autism either as something that makes a person useless or something that makes them extraordinary. But all we ask is that we’re seen as valuable humans who just happen to be wired differently.
Stereotype 5: Autistic people are organised
In the media autistic people are portrayed as people who have very rigid routines and structures and some hefty organisation skills. Again, this may be true for some of them but definitely not all. While I do like some structure myself, I’m not very good at keeping up with routines and I’m definitely not always organised. In fact, most autistic people I know are more on the chaotic side when it comes to their daily life structures and routines. And while I love sorting a box of buttons by size and colour, that doesn’t mean I absolutely have to put everything back in a certain spot in order to go on with my day.
Stereotype 6: Autistic people are often young boys
How many non-male autistic characters have you seen in popular media? And how many of them are older than 25? I personally can’t think of that many. A big misconception about autism is that it’s a syndrome that mostly occurs in young and teenage boys. This is not because it’s more common in boys, but because the characteristics for girls are different and misunderstood. So girls are often getting wrongly diagnosed or dismissed. Not only that, it’s like people forget that autistic adults exist. I’ve heard phrases like “he used to have autism” or “as a kid she was autistic” many times. It’s a false statement, because autism is for life. It can’t magically be cured and it won’t go away over time. You’re born with it and you die with it. Simple as that.
Another little sidetrack here: a lot of people who identify as non-binary are also autistic (this includes myself). My theory is that this is because people with autism are kind of detached from social norms and thus also from gender norms. But I digress.
Bottom line is: autistic people are incredibly diverse. We deserve to be treated as an individual and not as a generalisation of an image portrayed by popular media. If you want to do something useful for autism acceptance month, then have our backs. Treat us like you would treat everyone else. You may just start to like us.
Want to read more about how to help us? Read my blogpost from last year’s autism acceptance month!
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