We autistics are usually all too well aware of how the public image of autism is grossly inaccurate. The stereotypical autistic is usually seen as either –
a) The non-verbal or barely verbal young boy, presumed to be intellectually disabled, non-toilet-trained, faecal smearing, constantly stimming, refusing to be touched or cuddled, with frequent meltdowns, and running away any chance he gets;
b) The Asperger's-type geeky adolescent male, neck-deep in computers, who can code better than he can talk, with minimal social skills, emotionally cold, uninterested in making friends, and probably with questionable personal hygiene.
The professionals, meanwhile, describe us as being ‘deficient’ in things like theory of mind or empathy, and tell us we can’t imagine what others are feeling, or understand ourselves properly for that matter, or grasp abstract concepts, philosophical ideas, and so on.
We know that these stereotypes are not true, but even amongst ourselves, we can fall into the mistake of over-generalising. We’re much preoccupied with building community right now, searching amongst ourselves for similarities. We’re doing a lot of “Do you feel this, experience this?” or “Does anyone know what I mean by…?”; type stuff in our groups. We share, we support, we revel in our alikeness, after so many years of being always the ‘different one’, the outcast, outsider, weirdo, or reject.
And this is an excellent and much-needed thing. However, there is one drawback to it. And that is in our eagerness to find and share our similarities, we may gloss over our very real differences. Yes, we all have our autism in common, that ‘different brain’, but that can manifest in so many different ways.
Because for every behaviour or response or trait that even we think of as being ‘typically’ autistic, we can find someone on the spectrum who doesn’t have it, or do it.
Some of us, of course, are female, or non-white (a group waaay under-diagnosed), or not even in Western countries. We come from both genders and the inter-gender, all races and nationalities and religions and sexualities, all classes and sub-sections of humanity, and all ages too (you don’t stop being autistic the day you turn eighteen!).
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are autistics, for instance, who are fine with eye contact, extroverted autistics who enjoy other people’s company, and who can do, and sometimes prefer, small talk, and autistics who find routines tiring rather than helpful, or who are comfortable with change and variety, or even crave it, hating being ‘stuck in a rut’.
There are autistics who have never had a meltdown, who are hypo-sensitive to sensory input, especially pain, whose stims are non-existent or kept very quiet and private or non-obvious, who have no particular ‘special interests’, or who are hopeless with maths and/or technology, preferring the social sciences or the arts or just about anything but computers.
There are whimsical autistics, and those who are totally serious. Many of us have a good sense of humour, although there are a few who must have been behind the door when they were handed out. There are autistics who can handle and even do sarcasm and metaphor, and those who can understand and use abstract or figurative language and/or philosophical concepts just fine.
And while many autistics struggle with friendships and/or relationships, choose not to try for them, or truly don’t want them, many others are able to build long-lasting connections with others, even marrying and/or having children. There are also many autistics who have no problem with physical or verbal affection, including to their children, though they vary a lot as to who with, and how and when, they express it to adults.
There are even autistics who can read facial expressions, though usually after many years of deliberately studying other people, while others are still on the beginnings of this process, or find themselves incapable of even beginning it. Some of us have learnt social skills to the point where we’re actually quite socially savvy, and some are just naturally ‘social beings’, and can work well in team or group situations, including workplaces.
There are also autistics who don’t have autism as their main identity, not because they view it negatively or reject it, but because other factors dominate their lives far more. These factors can include mental health problems, physical health problems, a racial, ethnic, cultural or religious identity, or indeed just about anything that they feel has shaped their lives far more than autism has.
There are even autistics who do (seem to) fit the popular stereotypes, though I personally feel that this is more superficial than real – there’s probably a good intelligence behind at least some of those non-verbal/barely verbal fronts, for instance, if the examples of autistics like Amy Sequenzia, Carly Fleischmann, Ido Kedar or Tito Mukhopadhyay are anything to go by.
This list could probably be even longer, but you get the picture. My point here, is that every time we say “autistics have/do…”, rather than “many/some autistics have/do…” we risk isolating those who differ from our type of autism, leaving them feeling left out and more alone than ever. Sometimes an autistic is rejected or attacked by others as ‘not properly autistic’, on precisely these grounds. And yes, that can and has happened, and it’s often very distressing to the individual concerned.
We need to be conscious that although we all have the different neurology that is the core of our autism, everyone expresses that neurology differently, and will have many other defining characteristics as well. We need to remember that our autism is only our autism, not everyone else’s.
And we all have the right to be whatever type of autistic we are, even if that doesn’t fit the majority view of ‘what autism is’, even in our own communities.