As a successful adult woman with autism I feel like I need to let everyone in on something I’ve noticed for awhile now. Recently I watched a documentary about a young man on the autism spectrum sharing the story of his life and how his family spoke to him through his special interest. Then I saw a commercial for a tv drama series about a young man with autism who is a doctor. A few days ago I read an article in a magazine about a teenage boy on the spectrum whose parents were talking about his life and his determination to work in a menial labor job in the city. What I realized is that these boys were very similar in characteristics, the media was telling their story and accidentally creating a set of stereotypes. They (the media) are, without realizing it, making a an image of what autism “looks like”. White, male, young, pure and naive, with the social manners of a child but the intellect of a super robot, focusing only on their special interest, emphasizing traits that typically come with autism. These traits/stereotypes might sound familiar to you.
Sets of habits (dietary, fashion, schedule) and with little to no friends outside the autism spectrum; they are either depicted as robotic where human emotions are concerned but having superior intellect, or hindered by their autism to the degree that they fail to survive independently. This lack of diversity when portraying both the fictional and the true experiences of people on the spectrum perpetuates limited and sometimes unflattering stereotypes. My goal in writing this is to bring awareness to the problem and hopefully encourage people to think of Autism as one piece of the complex puzzle that makes a person who they are.
The current stereotypes surrounding autism have affected me in small but important ways. When I was working on the comic strip “Jigsaw” for Apostrophe magazine, my mom was waiting in an office and saw a copy of the the magazine on the table (this was before they stopped printing it and went completely digital). She took the copy and showed the secretary telling her that I was a person on the spectrum who created this comic. My mom pointed to the photo of me that was in the magazine and the secretary looked at it and said, “Huh, she doesn’t look like she has autism.”
The image media set in people’s brains by now does not look at the autism spectrum beyond a certain set of traits. A few weeks ago a parent of a child on the spectrum told me that it is a disease to be treated. I tried to tell them that I don’t see it as a disease but as how my brain was wired. Of course it didn’t change their mind and they told me “it’s still a disease”.
The thing about invisible disabilities like autism is that people don’t know you have it until you tell them. I don’t introduce myself as “a person with autism” because that is all they see afterward. I want people to get to know me as a person not as a label. I want them to see me for my personality, my likes and dislikes, as a human being with strengths and flaws. A lot of people are comfortable around me, are very open and the subject of autism is almost never brought up. But I break those stereotypes of the label with just being myself around people. If I do decide to tell them about my autism, they are always surprised. I like it when I tell someone I’ve known for awhile because they don’t even guess that my brain is wired differently.
Then they say I must be on the “high functioning” part of the spectrum, such as aspergers. Nope. I was diagnosed as a “classic autism” when I was three. The list of things that doctors told my parents I could never and would never be able to do was extensive. As I grew up I went through different treatments that best helped me at that time. Physical therapy as a kid to help with my sensory overload, speech therapy for verbal and non-verbal communication, horse riding therapy (apparently horse riding helps with balance? I don’t know, I was very small at the time this happened), occupational therapy as a young adult to help with multitasking, looking at job listings, and how to survive in the workplace.
But most importantly I have a diverse array of friends who helped and supported me through all the ever-changing social hurdles. I worked hard to get where I am today, so it hurts a little when someone looks at me and sees only the label and not the person I have become.
Autism is a spectrum. It wires the brain differently with each person. Temple Grandin (another successful woman on the spectrum) lists a few examples of the most common types of autistic brains in her book Thinking in Pictures. Some examples of different diagnosis are aspergers syndrome, PDD, Kanners, low functioning, and classic autism. Each person’s brain processes sensory and emotional information internally and externally. These are on a sliding scale between hypo (too little), hyper (too much), and white noise. And of course each brain is wired differently to process and express information and ideas . For example, visual (like myself), pattern (math and music), and verbal learners.
In the book “The Power of Different” by Gail Saltz, she explains that for any type of neurological differences there is a bell curve of severity from neuro typical or “normal” and incredibly severe. There are those that only have a slight difference in their thinking, those that only suffer from their extreme symptoms, and those in the middle of the bell curve that are awkward but given the right therapies can bring something new and wonderful to the table.
And the diagnosis does not discriminate, anyone can be on austim spectrum no matter what race, religion, gender, sexuality, or age they are. You don’t see everyone else on the spectrum in documentaries and magazines. Apostrophe magazine though is an exception in all of this in that they write stories about people with disabilities from all walks of life. These people are very successful in their own unique ways.
That’s another thing they don’t usually address when we talk about autism: relationships, especially romantic ones. The media usually depicts or show the stories of people with autism who never and can never have romantic relationships. But there are plenty of people on the spectrum who have fulfilling romantic lives and successful marriages. Connecting with people emotionally, sexually, and platonically. Lately we understand as a society that there are different sliding scales of gender, sexuality, and romantic interest for each individual. Same applies for people on the spectrum.
Autism is a set of neurological differences and a person can be diagnosed with other disabilities along with autism. In short, the brain is complex and so are humans.
Let me point out an example of a fantastic well written character that prompted me to write this. In the television show “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” in the episode “The Blood of Juana the Mad” the character, Beatrice Mason, is a brilliant medical student who is labeled as an “odd ball” because she is constantly working (she is analyzing “The Book of Hours” with one of the professors), clinical, emotionally detached, super analytical to the most minute details, eats only jam sandwiches, freaks out when someone tries to touch her, does not get social cues, and when overloaded leans her head against one of the pillars after she runs out of a room full with people. She sighs “people are just, confusing”.
We see her as an successful, intelligent, passionate, adult woman with the only things standing in her way are sexism of the 1920’s and the male medical students who constantly harass her. Though she does have a friend, Charlie Street, who fights off some of the harassers and understands her strengths and struggles seeing her as an equal. This was such a breath of fresh air. This depiction was going outside the stereotypes, it was closer to my experiences as a woman passionate about her field of study. Not the exact same, but closer.
There are other fictional characters who are socially awkward in different ways that I’m glad to see exist. Peridot from Steven Universe is a great example, she sticks with what makes most sense to her which is technology, but she gradually goes outside her comfort zone. Even when she fails in her interactions with some of the other characters she keeps trying. She finally reaches out with her recorder, the thing that is nearest and dearest to her. That is very relatable to many people who struggle with social interactions. The episodes “Log Date 7 15 2” and “Barn Mates” are, in my opinion, the best episodes I have seen so far.
There is hope of breaking the mold, and as an independent creator of webcomics, storyboards, and art I can tell my story using the tools I have at my dispense to let people know that there is diversity within the autism spectrum. That is the best part of indie creators is that they get to tell their own unique stories not limited by the accidental (and sometimes not so accidental) stereotypes popular media has put into the public consciousness. I want to put more racial, religious, gender, sexual, and neurological diversity into my graphic novels and although I have the best intentions I know I will most likely make some mistakes along the way because I am a white woman with autism that has her own experiences and personal baggage.
I will appreciate it very much when someone from any community outside my own can point out my mistakes politely, it will be very exciting to learn and improve to become a better storyteller and better person. That is why I am writing this blog post, to point out the mistakes that the media is making and hopefully making a positive difference in doing so.
It will be hard to think beyond the stereotype of autism we have seen for the last thirty years, but just trying is a great start. If you go outside the box you will be surprised and amazed at the people that exist in the world.