Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Looking Autistic: Stereotypes Spread By "Awareness"

Hello, and welcome to day four of my Autism Acceptance Month post series!

In yesterday's post, Autism Speaks: Are They Really That Bad?, I provided examples of some instances in which attempts to raise awareness of Autism failed in overwhelmingly ableist ways.  The negative effects of those campaigns are often obvious, and can easily be traced back to the campaigns' messages.  Today I'm going to address one of the more subtle effects of flawed awareness campaigns: false stereotypes.

There are very few Autistics who haven't, at some point in time, been described as not looking Autistic.  This is in spite of the fact that Autism has no inherent visual indicators, meaning that it's impossible to accurately determine whether or not someone is Autistic based on their appearance.  You can't even determine whether or not someone's Autistic by looking at a scan of their brain, much less by looking at their face and/or body.  Nevertheless, complete strangers often feel the need to announce that Autistics they have just met, or even just seen from a distance, don't look Autistic.

I myself have been described to my father as not looking Autistic... by a woman who had seen me walk from his truck to the door of a school building I was attending summer camp for Disabled teens at.  That was the first time she'd seen me, I was in her field of vision for less than a minute, and I never even looked in her direction.  There was absolutely no way for her to gain the information she would have needed to make a well-reasoned guess as to whether or not I was Autistic, yet she somehow arrived at the conclusion that I wasn't and felt the need to share that conclusion with my father.

So, what do people think Autistics look like?

Ignoring the inherent rudeness of announcing to a complete stranger that their Autistic child does not look Autistic, that encounter still raises the question of what people think Autistics look like.  Given that the only things this woman could possibly have noticed about me were my physical appearance and the fact that I was able to walk across a parking lot unaccompanied, here is a list of factors that I think likely contributed to her flawed assessment of me:

  • I am female.
  • I am capable of planning.
  • I do not run away at the first opportunity.
  • I do not stim in very obvious manners at all times.
  • I am capable of accurately assessing risks (usually).

I can't think of anything else she could have noticed during that encounter that would have contributed to her idea that she was looking at a non-Autistic teen.

Every item on that list is irrelevant to whether or not I am Autistic, but because of flawed efforts to raise awareness of Autism every item on that list is also likely to be treated as evidence that I am not Autistic.  Do you know why this is?  It's because many attempts to raise awareness of Autism unintentionally perpetuate the following myths about what Autism is and what Autistic people look like:

  • Autism is most common in white males.
  • Autistic people need constant supervision.
  • Autistic people rock and/or flap constantly.
  • Autistic people are incapable of independence.
  • Autistic people are rarerly capable of vocal speech.

Think about it.  How often have you seen an Autism awareness campaign quote the false statistic "Autism is four times more common in males than in females?"  How many times have you seen an image of a young white male paired with an article on Autism?  How often do you attend conferences on Autism and see hardly any Autistic people of color present?  How often do you see videos of Autistic children rocking, flapping, or pacing as an example of what Autism looks like?

How often do you see stereotypes portrayed as the reality of Autism?

I'll be astounded if anyone can honestly answer "never" to all the above questions.  The truth of the matter is that attempts to raise awareness for Autism regularly perpetuate the very stereotypes that they're supposed to be aiming to dispel.

What can you do to help contradict stereotypes?

Given how frequently they feature in Autism awareness campaigns, stereotypes about Autism aren't likely to go away on their own anytime soon.  Autistic people and our allies, however, can do a good deal to help dispel them.  Here are two major ways in which we can do so:


  • Highlight the diversity of the Autistic community.
    • If you are hosting any sort of Autism awareness/acceptance event make sure to include Autistics from a wide variety of backgrounds.  Featuring Autistics of varying ages, races, genders, and orientations, along with Autistics who have different support needs and use different types of communication is imperative if you expect people to learn that we aren't all young white cisgender males who need constant support. 
  • Call out and correct false claims about Autism/Autistics.
    • If you see someone making a false claim about Autism and/or Autistic people, then, by all means, call them out on it.  You'll either help educate them on the subject of Autism or at least let the other people hearing/seeing their claims know that they aren't being entirely truthful and that there are better sources from which to gain information on Autism (for example, actual Autistic people).

Stick around for more Autistic-written, Autism-related content, and feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.  Thanks for stopping by!



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