Stereotype 1: Functioning Labels
A sliding scale
Autism is usually conceptualised as a spectrum or continuum with classic autism at the severe end of the scale (Low-Functioning) and Asperger’s syndrome at the mild end (High-Functioning). This suggests that Autism is a singular, one-dimensional entity, where classic autism is the prototype and all other manifestations are comparatively graded. According to this view-point all autistic people share the same impairments in social interaction, social communication, and social imagination, but it is possible to be only minimally affected and to have a life relatively free from struggle, as the word ‘mild’ implies. You might be wondering what type of autistic person is labeled ‘mild’ and what type is labelled ‘severe’? Generally speaking the ‘mild’ epithet is given to those who are articulate, have independence potential, have insight into their condition, and, at least some of the time, can suppress obvious autistic behaviour. I emphasise behaviour because this is important, and I will be coming back to this later. By contrast, the ‘severe’ label is applied when the individual with autism has a language impairment, minimal to no independence potential, and is socially aloof and in their own world.
A multi-dimensional spectrum
A more nuanced and, in my opinion, realistic view of Autism is that Autism is not one condition but a constellation of syndromes that can be equally severe while affecting people in very different ways. Therefore it is a mistake to grade autism from mild to severe as if it were one homogenous block. The different Autisms do not exist in a vacuum but interact with many different factors such as a person’s age; personality; co-existing conditions; intellectual ability; and life events. This approach is humanistic and person centered because it emphasises individual experience and dynamic change as opposed to rigid and static labels; a person might function differently at different stages of their life, and even from day to day, depending on how stressed they are, opportunities for learning and developmental progression, and the sensory environment. Autism will affect every aspect of a person’s life, even if this is not always obvious.
A person who has been given the label ‘High-Functioning Autism’ has often learnt to mask or hide their symptoms. Masking is an adaptive coping strategy that helps the person to avoid ridicule and social ostracism.However, this can give people who do not know the person well, the wrong impression. It can appear to the untrained eye as though the person has minimal problems because they look at the other person, ask questions, speak clearly, and seem to abide by the social rules. But what is going on inside, behind the mask, will tell a very different story. This subjective landscape is often full of deep psychic wounds, the product of ceaseless mental toil and fatigue.
I can use my own experience to explain more clearly what masking involves: As I have grown older, I have become more aware of what constitutes socially acceptable behaviour. I am reasonably intelligent and so I can intellectually work out how to get along in society without creating any ripples. I don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to myself, and I want people to see me in a favourable light. I have read many books and watched many films, and this, along with observation and practice, has meant that I can avoid flouting the more obvious social rules. However, my innate difficulties with social relatedness have not gone away, and I am constantly reminded of this fact whenever I am expected to interact with other people. Inside I feel tense, uncertain and over-stimulated, because I have no instinctive social awareness and my brain has to work over-time to decode movement, voice, what to say and what to do. I also have to process and organise all the other external and internal information that competes for my attention. Socialising is never relaxing, it is always laborious. So why do I bother even trying? A part of me does like social contact, being with other humans, and feeling part of something that is larger than myself. I do not have the aloof personality that, according to stereotype, defines the ‘Low Functioning’ autistic. Of course, personality is one of the variables that I mentioned in passing earlier. Just as Neurotypicals differ in terms of social motivation, so do autistics. Personality has nothing to do with functioning, and so it is rather absurd that an autistic person who internalises and masks symptoms, is seen as less autistic and ‘Higher Functioning’ than an Autistic person who mainly externalizes their problems. It is hard to ignore a child who throws a chair across a classroom or answers back to teachers. But what about the autistic child who mostly sits quietly in the corner, not creating any trouble, but gazing out of the window and not getting much work done? Teachers might have concerns about this child, but it is less likely that the child will be identified as autistic, even if all the symptoms are present. This is worrying because not getting a timely diagnosis can mean that the child is not adequately supported, and this increases the risk of mental health problems, poor self esteem, and lower functioning later on. Remember, functioning changes through the lifespan. Lack of diagnosis will certainly impair functioning!!
Another variable that people use to define functioning is intellectual capacity. This is because Autism was historically considered to go hand in hand with learning disability. When it became apparent that some autistic people had an average to high IQ, they were labelled ‘High Functioning’. If you have normal intellectual ability it is likely that you won’t need 24/7 supervision. Given the right support, it is possible that you will be able to live a reasonably independent life. However, an important point that is often ignored is the uneven skills profile that is so common in Autism. This means that an Autistic person might function better in some areas than in others. For example, they might be quite good at writing essays on their favourite subject, or have a good memory for dates, but really struggle to maintain employment and manage their life without support. Their comparatively high intellectual ability in circumscribed areas can occlude their difficulties in other areas, where their functioning might be much lower than expected. This is another reason why functioning labels are so simplistic and incorrect.
To reiterate, functioning is so much broader in scope than mere intellectual capacity as measured by IQ alone.
External versus internal impact
The ‘High Functioning’ label sends the wrong impression that you are almost Neurotypical, which is as nonsensical as thinking that you can be almost pregnant. The unsaid assumption is that you are not really that autistic; that your life is not that difficult compared to those autistic people who are given the ”Low Functioning” label. This viewpoint conflates the difficulties that other people experience because of autistic behaviour and the difficulties that you yourself have to endure. Both a so called ‘Low Functioning’ and ‘High Functioning’ person might be severely affected by autism from an internal perspective. Both individuals might experience severe sensory overload and an inability to intuitively understand other people. But the ‘Low Functioning’ person will also probably have a learning disability. They might be very destructive and demanding, and their Autism will have a huge external impact. Because of their learning disability they won’t be able to mask their symptoms, and insight will be low to non-existent. Conversely the ‘High-Functioning’ person will not necessarily cause many problems for other people, particularly if they have a passive and quiet personality. Their internal struggles will often be overlooked, even if their Autism causes profound difficulties for themselves: difficulty securing employment, difficulty relating to others, problems with day to day organisation skills, sensitivity to noise and movement. I am affected by all these areas, but when I am out and about I can assume a quiet and unobtrusive persona. And this is why I am wrongly labelled ‘mild’ or ‘High-Functioning”. But what happens if the mask falls off when I out in public? If, because of tiredness or anxiety, I start withdrawing into myself, the coercive nature of the mask becomes fully apparent. Instead of seeing my behaviour as a reasonable response to an unbearable situation that cannot be processed because of a neurological disability, other people will harshly pontificate on the necessity of abiding by the ‘rules’ of polite social behaviour. If they can act appropriately when stressed, then why can’t I? My behaviour will be assessed using the same, normative standards that Neurotypicals use for each other, and my disability will be ignored. Thanks to the illusory nature of masking and the invisibility of internal experience, it is easy for people to underestimate or even forget my Autism. When the mask falls off, it is common for autistic people to face ridicule and abuse because they don’t look disabled. The message sent out by society is that in order to be both accepted and respected, you should hide your Autism. This can cause untold damage to one’s self-esteem because your very essence is portrayed by society as wrong and flawed.
Stereotype 2 : Special Abilities
Only 1 in 200 people with Autism have a special ability, but popular representations of Autism portray savant like abilities as the norm. The prototypical example is the 1988 film Rain Man, where the Autistic character Raymond, memorised every name and number from A-G in the phone book in one evening, and he could at one glance identify how many toothpicks had fallen onto the floor. The special abilities that are represented are usually in very narrow areas such as memory, maths, computers, or cracking codes. Another example is the supposedly Autistic character Christopher in the novel The Curious Incident of the dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Christopher is based on the stereotypical detective character Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, who has also been represented as autistic. Both Christopher and Sherlock are obsessed with charts, lists and timetables. A combination of logical power and emotional detachment allow them to observe concrete details that ordinary people will never see.
The special abilities stereotype does not reflect the actual lived experience of most autistic people and it denies the diversity within the Autistic Spectrum. Arguably the stereotype makes Autism more palatable and fascinating for a Neurotypical audience, as Autism is reduced to mere spectacle, a bit like the freak shows of the past. This is a sanitized and romanticised portrayal of Autism, which sends out the message that Autism is only acceptable if it is compensated for by extraordinary strengths and achievements. Therefore it creates impossibly high standards for people with Autism. The implicit assumption is that if you don’t have any special abilities, you are a failed autistic and society has no room for you. By default, you are excluded from the narrative and your Autism is overlooked because you do not display the expected interests and skills. This can result in a lack of support and diagnosis. But why should autistic people have to be super-talented? After all, Neurotypical people are not expected to have special gifts. Well, let me introduce the concept of ”inspiration porn”. This means that mainstream society exploits and objectifies disabled people for their own ends. The disabled person’s sole reason for existing is to inspire and motivate the non-disabled audience. The fear is taken out of disability because it is portrayed as coming with special compensations. This narrative also assumes that disability can be overcome with a smile and willful determination. Anyone who does not achieve, is simply not trying hard enough. This is a regressive argument that could potentially be used to justify welfare cuts. Disability should not be ignored in the name of false optimism. The idea that people with Autism have marketable skills plays into the idea that Autism is just an exaggerated personality quirk instead of a neurologically based disability. This argument can be used to reduce the autistic person to an object of comparison; someone else with Autism didn’t need extra support, so why are you asking for it?. The result is the creation of an an elitist hierarchy that maintains the status quo while being used as a weapon to beat other people with Autism who do not have any marketable skills .
The fact that a small number of autistic people become Celebrities in their field is used as evidence that a ”level playing field” exists. This is in spite of the fact that, in reality, only 15 per cent of autistic people are gainfully employed. Clearly we have a long way to go in including every single person with Autism, regardless of their abilities. Not everyone with Autism is interested in maths or computers and will be able to work with IT or technology. People with Autism might want to work with children or animals. But these jobs are rarely considered as possibilities for Autistic people because of the erroneous belief that Autistic people can only excel in fields that involve concrete logic. The special abilities stereotype is therefore dehumanising because it turns the Autistic person into a machine devoid of personality or emotion. It is no coincidence that the robot analogy has often been used when describing Autistic people. After all , the robot displays an aptitude for repetitive and inflexible, highly specialised tasks, while lacking emotional expression. This metaphor is highly alienating because no gulf is deeper than that between people and things.
It is interesting to note what happens when an Autistic person displays remarkable ability in an area that is not conventionally associated with Autism. For example, some Autistic people are talented and gifted artists. Artistic ability is imaginative and creative, but it is a widely held belief that Autistic people do not have imagination. Instead of their art being allowed to contradict the established narrative, the talent is explained away as just another obsessive fixation and an example of Autistic attention to detail. Therefore, the art is reduced to the status of symptom. Imaginative abilities and aesthetic choices are deemphasised . This suggests that the Autistic person does not possess the most human quality of all: Agency and Subjecthood. The hard work that the Autistic person put in to their art is overlooked and their abilities are pathologised as an inevitable consequence of their condition.
One example of an Autistic artist who challenges the clinical theories about Autism is Jonathan Lerman. Lerman excels at drawing faces, which led a gallery owner to say that ”most autistic artists don’t show faces”. Lerman’s work is surely evidence that Autistic people can be interested in faces, but instead of rocking the status quo, Lerman is turned into an ”exceptional autistic” whose ”exotic allure” reduces his status to that of a freak.
To summarise this section, I would like to draw your attention to the ominous parallels between the special ability stereotype and forms of racism and other oppression. Historically a few select black people were sometimes given ”magical” powers in popular representations. The black person exploited in this way was always regarded as an exception, while society continued to discriminate against and exclude black people as a whole. Ableism is the name for a similar form of oppression that occurs against Disabled people.
Stereotype 3: No feelings
This stereotype is inextricably linked with the Special Abilities stereotype. As such, it is a really a composite stereotype of the Autistic person having powers that a super computer might possess, along with a a lack of empathy. After all, machines and robots do not feel. The implication that there is an irreconcilable gulf between Neurotypicals and Autistic people is actually very concerning. This alienating discourse reduces any chance of integration because it induces a fear of difference. Autistic people have even been described by the Neurologist Oliver Sacks as a ”Stranger in our midst”, despite the fact that, in reality, people with Autism are just ordinary people who happen to have a neurological disability.
In popular culture people with Autism are often portrayed as unfeeling sociopaths. For example, Christopher in the Curious Incident has a dream where almost everyone in the world dies, which allows him to break into houses and take people’s possessions. The only people that remain are people like him, which means people with special abilities. Christopher therefore comes across as very intolerant and elitist, but also violent. These narratives make it hard for a mainstream audience to empathise with Autistic characters, and in real life this opens the door to abuse and discrimination.
Yet in reality Autistic people experience the full gamut of human emotion and most people with Autism do care about other people. Difficulties with instinctively understanding what someone else might be thinking or feeling and knowing how to respond, should not be interpreted as a lack of empathy. Difficulties with expressing feelings such as sadness or love do not mean that these feelings do not exist. Autistic people are just as capable of love and affection as any other human being. In fact it has even been argued that the problem is not a lack of empathy but the opposite: that the autistic brain takes in too much emotional information, is bombarded by overly intense feelings, and as a way of coping with this onslaught, shuts down its responses. This theory makes sense to me because day to day life is very overwhelming and emotional situations make me feel overloaded. Excessive emotion scares me because it is chaotic and disorganised. Consequently I try and distance myself by putting a barrier up between myself and the emotionally arousing stimulus. However, there are times when the flood of emotion overwhelms this barrier, and I respond to the stimulus in an extremely intense way. If I am upset, I will cry as if the world has come to an end. If I am filled with intense joy, I will feel so ecstatic and happy that I don’t know what to do with myself. I certainly have feelings, but they are intense feelings, and, because of this, they are very painful to endure and so I try and suppress them.
Finally I would like to point out that the special abilities/no feelings composite stereotype is heavily gendered. Simon Baron Cohen argues that Autism is simply an expression of an ‘extreme male brain’, whereby men are better at understanding machines and systems, while women are naturally good at understanding emotions. This stereotype has led to the underdiagnosis of women, particularly those who do not conform to the male stereotype. Of course it is equally true that men with Autism who do not conform to the masculine image are less likely to be diagnosed. Autism fits into other sexist stereotypes about what it means to be a man and a woman. However the hyper-masculine portrayal of Autism is being criticised as people become more aware of the different types of Autism, and how Autism is not synonymous with ultra macho, cold, logical emotional indifference.
To sum up, please see beyond the stereotype and get to know the person. Autism is not a singular set of symptoms, and people can experience Autism in many different ways. Personality, abilities, education, interests, and experiences, all interact with Autism to create a unique human being. Each person is a multi-dimensional character with feelings and a life story. We are not one dimensional ‘others’ or ‘a stranger in your midst’.