When I was a kid, autism was uncommon and most people had never heard of it or had any idea what it was. Thanks to the hard work of a lot of people over a number of years, that has changed. Nearly everyone has heard of autism and knows something about it. While this is a great thing, what people may have heard about autism isn’t always great. In fact, some of the information and perceptions floating around can be downright harmful.
For the longest time, whenever people heard the word autism they thought of the movie “Rain Man.” Yes, the main character in that movie does an amazing job of portraying a guy with low-functioning autism, but his story is only one tiny piece of what autism is and by no means does it represent the majority of autistics. These days, the main famous example of autism is Temple Grandin. Yes, she has done amazing things, but again, she represents only one tiny piece of autism.
I understand wanting to point to a person and say, “See? This is what autism looks like.” It makes things so much easier than trying to explain such a complex and often confusing neurological disorder. The problem is, most people on the autism spectrum aren’t like Rain Man or Temple Grandin. Most fall somewhere in between. The oft quoted, “When you’ve seen one person with autism, you’ve seen one person with autism,” is absolutely right. Autism is as individual as the person who has it. Yes, all autistics share some similarities, but how those similarities present may be wildly different from one person to the next.
About here is where I should mention that I’m autistic. That fact surprises most people because (as I’ve been told) I seem so normal. And that is a perfect example of the problem with stereotyping what autism looks like by using famous people or characters to explain the disorder. No matter how normal I may seem, I have difficulties that most people don’t see. The same kind of difficulties are shared by people all across the autism spectrum. Some (like me) hide these difficulties better than others, but they still exist. The unseen struggles are just as real and interfere with life just as much as those anyone can see.
I must admit that the way autism awareness has been raised isn’t the best. I also admit that I may have added to the problem when I first started talking about autism, but you must understand the background that led to the problem. You see, before the big push for autism awareness, the disorder was viewed as a negative, life-destroying thing that would keep anyone diagnosed with it from ever having anything close to a normal, successful life. Some people still think that way, but autism awareness has changed the way most people view autism. In an attempt to raise awareness about the reality of autism, a lot of us talked about the positive aspects of autism and ignored the negative. While it worked to change the general public’s perception, it has also created a new monster. Now people are so busy focusing on how positive autism can be that it can be next to impossible to get any assistance for the difficult aspects people don’t like to talk about.
Essentially, the pendulum that had been at the far negative end has swung too far toward the positive. What we need is for it to settle somewhere near the middle, for people to talk about both the positive and the negative in an open and honest way. Then maybe the truth about autism will become the general perception rather than the current perception that expects autistics to either fail miserable or succeed beyond what most of us are capable of.
The biggest truth I and other autistics want the world to know is that we are people. Yes, we are different. Yes, we struggle. But we have as broad a range of intelligence, talents, and interests as any other segment of society. It’s important to remember that a high IQ doesn’t mean someone is capable of holding a job or living on their own, just as a low IQ doesn’t mean the person will never find success at anything or have their own home.
We are all different, and our abilities may vary widely from one area of life to another. We may need more help with some things than non-autistics, but we have skills and talents that can help non-autistics as well. We are all individuals with our own unique personalities, just like every other human on the planet.