I don’t think I need to list common autism stereotypes. Basically, if you’ve ever looked at the internet, watched the news or, you know, are human…you’ve heard them.
What I’d rather focus on are their consequences, because autism stereotypes are more than just bad information and lazy thinking. They actively impact and hurt folks on the spectrum. They shape how people view autism, and severely narrow down perceptions and expectations. It can be hard for autistics to thrive in life when they are perceived as “lost in their own world”, “emotionless” and so on.
Stereotypes not only establish false autistic traits…they suggest that these traits are fixed and permanent features. Thing is? They’re not. For me, the biggest problem with stereotypes is that they deny a crucial fact…a fact that I think too few people know: autistics can change. We have minds. We think. We grow.
Traits that I possessed at age 5 were different at age 10; and even more different at age 30.
Let’s take an innocuous example of a common stereotype: “people on the autism spectrum can be very literal and have trouble processing humor”. In my case, yes, I was extremely literal as a kid. I had trouble seeing that words could have nuances and shades of meaning. Due to this fact, I had a long series of confusing social interactions. But these interactions made me curious about words. I thought about them, what they mean, and over the years, my sense of words and humor evolved. My sense of self evolved with it.
I was literal. Then I wasn’t. I changed. Stereotypes will never account for that.
Stereotypes will never account for a human mind. What they will do instead is pin those minds to a cork board like dead moths, and expect them to stay that way…always the same, never changing, gathering dust…forever. Autism, Down syndrome, Tourettes…impaired, disabled, different…with any word or way of being, stereotypes are the pins that imprison us. They limit, not just how we are perceived, but what we can accomplish, by insisting that these false traits are all that we are.
My sense is that stereotypes have a lot of staying power, because people…if they are so inclined…can look around and find some semblance of evidence to support them.
People hear, “Autistics are very literal,” and think “Hey, I know a spectrum kid who is like that,” reinforcing the stereotype. Never mind the other autistics they may know that are not literal…the one becomes the rule. And when the topic of autism comes up around that person, they will proceed to repeat the generalization, reference the kid they know, thus spreading the misinformation.
Let’s hope the kid being discussed doesn’t hear that too many times…because he or she may start to believe it. Let’s hope they know: the one is not the rule. Otherwise, they may accept the stereotype, allow it to shape their sense of self, thus preventing their mind from growing in new and surprising directions.
Let’s hope anyone caught between cork and pin can realize a better truth: that they have a mind; that they can think and change and grow.