A few years ago, I had a conversation with someone who was a friend of mine at the time, someone who also had Autism. She was in school, was athletic and reasonably social, had enough functionality to “pass” as normal but still struggled in some places. She told me that she wished she was a Savant.
This was the same girl who turned out to be the first person I had a crush on. I denied that possibility to myself for a long time, thinking that it was impossible for an Autistic to feel such a way. I’m a robot, like Data from Star Trek. When I finally admitted it to myself, and told my family that I actually loved someone, yes, loved someone, I had an emotional breakdown and an existential crisis. I wasn’t supposed to feel this way, why was I feeling this?
Why did two teenagers have these expectations of themselves, one thinking that she should be a super-genius, and the other that he should be immune to the most basic of human experience? I have an answer, and it sure isn’t Star Trek.
[For the record, she didn’t feel the same thing back but was fine with being friends. We hung out for a while, sometimes just the two of us, but for reasons I won’t go into, we broke up and haven’t had stayed in touch for a while, but last I heard she’s doing okay]
I now believe that the answer is quite clear: our expectations came from popular culture. Name a fictional character that is Autistic or Asperger’s, either stated so in the work itself, or acknowledged/confirmed by the creators. Now, see how many of these characters are A, extremely skilled in some way, B, asexual/aromantic, C, white and male, and D, mainly serve to enlighten the non-autistic main characters or audience [more on that later]. Here’s a small list:
Rain Man: [Raymond Babbit is gifted at math. Based on the real life, incredible man known as Kim Peek, who is a non-autistic, unique Special Needs man with savant skills and memory. I actually like this film, which I feel puts me in a minority compared to other Autistics. I like it because it did a lot of advocacy coming out in a time when “Autism” wasn’t a household name, and it was also more medically/socially accurate than many films that came later. The problem is that it was the only viewpoint people had for a long time.]
The Good Doctor: [a hot new Canadian piece of trite, based on a 2013 Korean TV show with the same premise. Basically, a surgeon is gifted at medicine because of Autism. Stereotypes abound. I hated this show, as covered in my pending review]
Mercury Rising: [a nine-year old cracks a 2-billion dollar code written by two supercomputers!]
Bones: [the titular character is a genius forensic specialist, and several traits of Asperger’s. That being said, I like this show for how well the character is portrayed, and it’s a fun show.]
The Big Bang Theory: [Sheldon Cooper wasn’t intended to have Autism by the writers, but enough audience members assume that it’s canon so he makes the list. I strongly dislike this character because he is neurotic, annoying, condescending and an utter cry-baby [and the most popular show in Canada, if you can believe it]. He’s also a theoretical physicist, a job which involves big numbers ]
The Accountant: [Ben Affleck plays a dashing Autistic who is “gifted with math” and also gifted at shooting people in the face with a variety of weapons. I hope I don’t need to explain how offensively stupid this is, both to Autistics and movie audiences in general]
Alphas and Touch: [both good shows for their portrayal of autistics personalities, included together because they went the next step to giving autistic kids freakin’ superpowers!]
the curious incident of the dog in the night-time [sic]: [Included here because this is one of the few stories where the main character is gifted at math, but he’s neither a god [still learning it in high school], and it’s not a defining aspect of his character. I have mixed feelings of this novel as a whole, covered in my upcoming review of it]
Phewy that was a doozy, this blog post is starting to look like TvTropes. Please keep in mind that just because something is listed here, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Rain Man broke a lot of ground for its time, although the flip side are movies like The Accountant which is a borderline exploitation film. So, if I liked some of the entries in this list, and hated others, why make the list? It was to make a point.
My point is this: just because a thousand people saw a recent movie starring “a young [white] man with Autism”, it doesn’t mean a thousand people know what Autism is, or frankly have a clue as to my personality because they see someone else with a single trait in common with me. Particularly grating is the concept that, because I have Autism, I must be a Savant.
The actual rate of Savant Syndrome, as it is officially named, is about 10% of all autistic people , whereas in other intellectual disabilities the Savant rate is around 1%. Most people would take that to mean that a lot of Autistic people are Savants. I take that to mean that 90% aren’t.
I came across a very good scholarly article–titled Stereotypes of Autism–written about how movie stereotypes negatively affect people with Autism. I’ll include it along with the rest of my citations, although I’ll touch on some of the aspects to which it has opened my eyes. One idea which used the film Mercury Rising as an example, is how that movie portrays Savants as robots.
With the film’s plot being about an Autistic boy who out-thinks two super computers, it gives people the impression that Autistic people–therefore–have brains like computers. This in turn gives the impression that, like a computer, Autistics are wholly logic-based and do not feel emotion. This article also mentioned another good point: fiction is better known than non-fiction.
Everyone’s heard of Raymond Babbit, aka Rain Man, right? His name’s already been mentioned in this article! You ever heard of Kim Peek: the real man who was the inspiration for Rain Man ? What about Temple Grandin, who helped make the livestock industry more humane? Or Tito Mukhopadhyay, a non-verbal savant who is a renowned poet? Ms. Grandin is pretty well-known, but I probably stumped you with the other two names, didn’t I?
We’re bombarded with popular culture, and eventually, you start to believe it. The problem is, fiction forces people like me into one of two categories. Autistics are either unable to live independently, or are super-geniuses who are way more capable than the average person. Writing that down, it feels sinister to me.
It’s like neuro-typical, or “normal” people, want to keep us that way. Keep us on the Fringes of society. Keep us in care homes, unless we have some exploitable talent, in which case, put us to work doing the stuff they’re too stupid to do. But if we go out into the world, we better not develop feelings for pretty girl down the street. “Nope, that’s my girl, you go back to your numbers you freaky Autistic.”
Obviously most people aren’t that cruel, but they are ignorant, and the majority of what little knowledge exists is, frankly, bullshit. When the world around you is ignoring your cries for help, apathetic to who you are, instead shadowing it like a parrot who repeats words without knowing their meaning, it feels alone. It feels antagonistic.
To prove that I’m not making this up, here is an article about stereotypes about Autism, that ironically stereotypes autism [commence Picard face-palming]. The Huffington Post’s 7 Myths about Autism It’s Time to Put to Rest, makes multiple references to Sheldon Cooper from TBBT, and goes so far to refer to high functioning autistics as “Sheldons”. I honestly don’t believe the author of this article was trying to put us in our place–given what the article was titled, and how factually accurate it is–but she effectively did. Let me ask you this: would you want to be Sheldon Cooper?
As a side note, I do think about how difficult it would be to write about Autism as an outsider, and appreciate how people put in the effort. The article I cited even directly criticized the Savant myth. That’s one of the reasons why I included it: not all stereotyping or prejudice is malicious or on purpose, it just sort of happens. Also, I wanted to sort of prove that autistics can point out things neuro-typicals do wrong without acting offended, antagonistic or disliking an entire piece [the article] because of one or two issues [the “Sheldon” thing].
Let me make this clear: These Stereotypes are Damaging. They can put Autistic people in situations where they are expected to demonstrate abilities they don’t have–which I fortunately have never been subjected to–and they help spread misinformation such as the idea that autistic kids are just misbehaving.
I starting by mentioning someone I know with autism, so I’d like to end on it too. I have a friend people would say is a lot like Rain Man. He’s care-dependent, emotionally very sensitive, prone to violent out bursts when things just get too much, and has trouble understanding the nuances of speech. There are major personality differences–of course–I’m making a general comparison. However, unlike Rain Man, he’s not a Savant. My friend is not a genius at math or able to solve String Theory. Why couldn’t Rain Man been about a guy like him, someone who is just disabled, and different, and that’s it? Do we have to be a Savant for someone to care about us?
1, Hiles, D. Savant Syndrome, , The Virtual Office of Dave Hiles, retrieved 2017, Oct 3rd, http://www.psy.dmu.ac.uk/drhiles/Savant%20Syndrome.htm
2, Treffert, D. A., The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future, , The Royal Society Publishing, retrieved 2017, Oct 3rd, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677584/
3, Draaisma, D., Stereotypes of autism, [2009, May 27th], PubMed Central, retrieved 2017, Oct 3rd, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677582/#!po=42.5676
4, Brown, H., 7 Myths About Autism It’s Time to Put to Rest, [2013, June 2nd] retrieved 2017, Nov 3rd, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/hannah-brown/7-myths-about-autism_b_2977120.html
5, Autism Stereotypes, UK Autistic,  retrieved 2017 Nov 3rd, https://ukautistic.org/autism-stereotypes/
6, Autism stereotypes ‘are damaging’, BBC Wales, [2007, Oct 29th] retrieved 2017, Nov 3rd, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/7066436.stm