Autistic Stereotypes

Picture an autistic person.  What do you see?

Chances are you pictured a white male, most likely a child.  Many people are totally unaware that females, and other ethnicities can be autistic.  For a long time even 'medical professionals' thought it to be an exclusively male condition.

To this day the media does a disservice to the autistic community, in most cases, by portraying an endless carousel of stereotypes to the public.  From the non-speaking male child with debilitating sensory issues, to the socially awkward, genius adult male, to the oh-so-popular savant, (all of them white of course). 

These representations exist within the autistic community, but are only a fraction of it, not the vast majority as the media would have you believe.

In fact, autistic people are as diverse in character, capabilities, race, gender and sexuality, as non autistic people are.  We are male, female, non-binary, trans, old and young.  We can be extremely academically intelligent, have very little academic capability, have learning differences or just be plain average.  We are artists, accountants, musicians, lawyers, athletes, teachers, scientists, and business owners; we can be good friends, and great parents.

As the saying goes - "if you've met one autistic person, you've met ONE autistic person."


There are so many frustrating and infuriating stereotypes that autistic people have to deal with on a daily basis.  Here are some of the classic things we are regularly confronted with:


"You don't LOOK autistic"

Were you expecting fangs and a tail?  What exactly is an autistic person 'supposed to' look like?

People often make this comment thinking they are being complimentary.  But what it's really saying is that the commenter has a negative view of autistic people, that they are in some way defective, perhaps even figures of pity.

It conveys the message that being non autistic is superior to being autistic.  When in fact they are just two different states of being, two differing neurologies.


"You must be high-functioning"

This phrase is used in two ways.  The first is similar to the "you don't look autistic" trope, in that it seems to convey praise by assuming that not being autistic is a more desirable status.

The second is often employed by parents of autistic children with higher support needs, when an autistic adult is trying to communicate their experiences as an autistic person in relation to a query the parent has raised.  The response is invariably along the lines of, "it's ok for you, you're high-functioning".  This is usually followed by an assertion that their child is non-speaking, and so the experiences cold have no similarity.

This assumes two things - first, that the person they are communicating with, (if via the computer), is speaking / that they have 'mouth words', and second, that being non-speaking is synonymous with being incapable of communication, or not intelligent enough for it.

The truth is that the person you are chatting to may be non speaking most, or all of the time, or may be selectively mute.  This doesn't mean they have nothing to say, or a lack of understanding of the world.  Furthermore, just because a person is fully verbal, doesn't mean they have no understanding or similarities with an autistic person who is non-speaking, and has higher support needs.

Support needs is the correct terminology, rather than using functioning labels.  Some autistic people have high support needs, (require more assistance), and some have lower support needs.  This varies from person to person, and for each individual, their support needs can vary from day-to-day.  One day you may be functioning perfectly well, and therefore have lower support needs, and the next you could be really struggling, and would be considered to have higher support needs.

This is why functioning labels are so harmful to the autistic community; they dismiss the struggles of autistic people who typically have lower support needs, and at the same time ignore the skills, and/or talents of those who typically have higher support needs.


"You can't be autistic - you can make eye contact"

Most autistic people can, and do make eye contact.  It's uncomfortable and unnatural for a lot of us, and for some can cause physical pain, but it's something we've learnt to do because it's expected of us.  Even though there is no logical reason for it, and it's not necessary for conversation, but the neurotypical, (non-autistic), majority can be very rigid and unaccommodating.

It's important to note that for a lot of autistic people, they struggle to concentrate when they are making eye contact, and can listen much better if they look elsewhere.


"But women / girls can't be autistic"

Of course they can!  It's likely that there are as many female, (and other gender expressions), autistic people as male.

However, autistic females find it much harder to get a diagnosis as all of the diagnostic criteria used was gathered from studying white, male children with high support needs.  Things are slowly improving, and the diagnostic criteria is expanding, but there is still a long way to go before there is equality in the process.


"You can be autistic, you have a job"

Autistic people can and do have jobs.  Just like non-autistic people, we can work at any level, in any field, dependant on our interests and skills.
We can also be debilitated by trying to navigate a working world not designed for us, which can leave many of us unable to work, or making the decision to become self-employed, like myself.


"You can't be autistic, you are married / in a serious relationship"

Autistic people are people, we can and do have serious relationships, just like anyone else.  My husband and I have been together 23 years, and married 17 years this year.


"You can't be autistic, you are a parent"

You guessed it, we can have kids too.  There's no reason an autistic person can't be a parent, and a good one at that.  

In fact it is more likely that an autistic person will have an autistic child, and we are better equipped to adjust to their needs as they are often similar or the same as our own.


"Autistic people have no empathy"

This is not true at all.

In fact many autistic people have hyper-empathy, meaning we can feel another persons emotions as strongly as they do.  This can be quite awkward, and many people will pass off this behaviour as the person being overly dramatic, or attention seeking.

As a result a number of us learn to entirely block our emotional responses so that it outwardly appears we are unmoved by another's distress.


"Autistic people are fantastic at maths"

No, we are not all 'rainman'.  Some are great at maths, some have difficulties with it, and most are just average at it, just like non-autistic people.


"All autistic people are geniuses or savants"

Again, this is not true.

Some certainly are, and many autistic people can appear brilliant due to the unique way in which we process information.  We will often see solutions to problems that neurotypical people wouldn't even consider.


"Autistic people don't have  a sense of humour"

Well of course we do!

Most autistic people enjoy comedy, and have a great sense of humour.  Some will have a sharp wit, or stinging sarcasm, some will struggle with standard punchline jokes but love surrealism.

Some of us are even professional comedians.  Take the amazing Hannah Gadsby for example.

Of course for some of us comedy holds  no appeal, but I'm sure that would be true of the non-autistic population too.

I personally love comedy, Greg Davies being a favourite, but I couldn't tell a joke to save my life!


"Autistic people don't have / want friends"

Whilst there are some of us who are happier alone, for the majority of us friendships are important.  We need social interaction too, although for many of us it's not a constant need.  We can go days or weeks without feeling the desire to be with others.

This lack of codependency can make friendships difficult, as non-autistic people will often perceive an autistic persons need for periods of solitude as a rejection.

As a result autistic people can end up with few, if any friends, and often the people we do form lasting friendships with tend to be neurodivergent themselves.


There are many other stereotypes and assumptions made about autistic people, these were just a few of the ones I have come across.  There is still a long way to go in getting accurate representation of neurodivergent people, and there are many battles to be fought to change the misconceptions of both the public, and the often ill-informed medical 'professionals'.

I hope I have left you feeling a little better informed, and inspired to seek out more autistic voices to broaden your knowledge, because there is no better source on the subject.

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