The Denver Autism Wheel

Persistent stereotypes about autism? Or (slowly) changing landscape?

Posted on: January 10, 2013

It’s a pet project of mine to learn more about the creative writing process (I’ve been a journalist, a blogger and a technical writer many years, but I have not tried my hand at fiction), so I got a book on writing believable characters based on personality profiles, and amongst them, I found a profile for a person with autism and nearly swallowed my gum when I read some of the assumptions (the book was written by a writer who is also a psychologist, BTW).
Now, before I elaborate on these assumptions, it is worth noting that the copy of the book I have was published in 1999. This was the year before Chris was born, and I say with some pride that a lot has changed in that time, regarding theories of parenting children with autism, psychological approaches to autism and our medical and scientific understanding of what it means to live with autism in a predominantly neurotypical world. However, there is a long history of research into autism which has confused the lack of ability to communicate effectively with the lack of desire to communicate effectively. These are historical misunderstandings about autism, and history is tough competition.
Assumption 1: the person with autism dislikes social rules, behaves disobediently and defiantly. It has long been my experience that it is quite the reverse. Individuals with autism appreciate social rules and try very, very hard to follow them. Rules make unpredictable social moments more predictable. And it’s that effort to adhere to social rules that often makes teens with autism the target of abuse and bullying because they don’t know that their peers expect them to follow adolescent rules that dictate they defy the adult rules. My retake on the assumption is this: the person with autism relies on social rules to help establish context but can behave unexpectedly if the rules he understands come into conflict with one another.
Assumption 2: the person with autism is not deterred by fear. Studies have established that a staggering majority (over 80%) of adolescents with autism also suffer from anxiety and/or depression. A lot of the anxiety I’ve seen 12 year old Chris display has to do with misunderstanding context or nonverbal cues. He has always hated attracting negative attention to himself, and that includes becoming a spectacle because he’s having a tantrum. It’s humiliating to him to lose control of his emotions in front of others. So again, it is my experience that the standard is actually the opposite of the assumption: the person with autism is routinely deterred from expressing himself or engaging with others because of fear.
Assumption 3: the person with autism is mistrusting and untrustworthy; lies. Chris does not lie. There are really good reasons for it. 1) Lying is breaking social rules, 2) Lying requires an understanding of what makes a plausible lie, and he lacks that skill (he tries to lie sometimes, and it’s completely apparent that he doesn’t know how to make a lie work), 3) Lying does not make logical sense; it requires a moral flexibility that is way too much work to be practical for him. And as for trust, he has to trust people to be honest and kind to him. It takes an act of deep betrayal to teach him not to trust a person, and most people don’t have the heart to do that to him. So, again, the observation that belies (hee hee) the assumption, is this: the person with autism is genuine, trusting others even to his own harm.
Of course, it was telling to read this profile, offered by a mental health professional over a decade ago. Keep these facts in mind:

  1. 1 in 88 children is affected by autism
  2. Boys are 4 to 5 times more likely to be affected
  3. If you know 7 people, the odds are that one of them is personally connected to autism

Part of the revelation to me was that these assumptions might still sound reasonable to the other 6 people who aren’t personally connected to autism. Considering the coverage of a recent school shooting, where reporters bandied the idea autism was a contributing factor, misinformation still abounds. Fortunately, our community of self-advocates, parents, providers and educators stepped up to dispel those myths. Individuals with autism are far more likely to be the victims of premeditated acts of violence than the perpetrators. Period. One of the reasons I keep writing and posting and acting as an advocate for Chris is to try to change these mistaken assumptions. We are all on a similar path, and the more we are able to reach out to others, the greater our understanding.

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