Public awareness of autism has undoubtedly increased in recent years – but that doesn't mean this awareness is always based on accuracy.
Stereotypes take centre-stage; common assumptions about autistic people, often true of some, are extrapolated out to cover the entire spectrum, and the lives of experiences of those who break these assumptions are glossed over. Other assumptions are just plain wrong; and here are just a few:
- No autistic people can make eye contact – so they can’t get on in life
One of the oldest and most common stereotypes about autistic people is an inability to make eye contact. For many, this is true, and can result in them missing non-verbal cues; but others report that their eye contact is considered normal by others, or that they feel they make eye contact too much. And many of those with difficulty making eye contact as children will have adapted and learnt to use it throughout life – it’s not as simple as assuming they can never do so.
And even when this is true, the belief that this is a barrier to all progression in life is far too simplistic. There are many specialist jobs, particularly in technology, which require special skills and an eye for detail rather than a great deal of social interaction, currently seeking workers with autism especially – while most autistic people won’t have the skills to fill these, eye contact isn’t an issue in the workplace for those who do. Also, while eye contact is often essential to making a good impression at interview, making clear that you find this difficult and asking for reasonable adjustments puts you on better footing – this shows you are self-aware, and prevents a lack of eye contact being mistaken for rudeness. Lastly, anxiety over the ‘right amount’ of eye contact is a very western phenomenon – in Japan, for example, eye contact itself is considered rude – so the response you get will depend largely on the nationality and past experiences of your interviewer!
- Autism is a learning disability
People with autism are far more likely to have a co-morbid learning disability than non-autistic people (most studies suggest a prevalence of 60-70%), such as dyslexia and dyscalculia, but just like autism is not a mental illness or mental health problem, autism is also not a learning disability itself; instead, it is more properly described as a neurodevelopmental disorder, condition or difference. The difference may seem academic, as autism can affect how a person learns, but it’s important to know as autistic people generally don’t like to be erroneously told they have a learning disability – not because there should be a stigma around learning disabilities, but because it misrepresents them and is factually incorrect.
- All autistic people behave in a ‘childish’ manner
This myth is not as prevalent than others, but still exists and is quite common in France, where Lacanian psychoanalytic thinking holds that autistic people regress to a pre-natal development stage – consciously or unconsciously – in “choosing” not to act socially and interact as expected. Elsewhere it occasionally surfaces – but it is based on interpreting social defects as being entirely down to child-like “stubbornness” and “a lack of effort”. It utterly ignores the very real challenges autistic people face, and recognising that many care very deeply about how others view them, and expend more, not less, energy to improve interactions.
Often, too, the intensity of sensory/neurological overload can lead to behaviour considered ‘childish’. But this is more accurately described as a meltdown, and non-autistic adults often act in similar ways in times of extreme stress – it’s just that, often, their stress tolerance level is higher. This is not a sign of immaturity unless one considers an ability to rewrite biology to be a cornerstone of growing up.
It’s also possible for autistic people to become “stuck” – for lack of a better word – on a special interest socially deemed to be childish well into adulthood. But this does not mean their “mental age” – itself a problematic concept – is that of a child’s. And for many on the spectrum – especially those with hyperlexia – opposite assumptions are the case; being very verbally fluent, but stilted, and often shunning slang, they become stereotyped as ‘little professors’, well beyond their age. Such stereotyping often means they are shunned by peers, however, while many adults view them as “odd” – ironically displaying rather childish attitudes themselves!
The autism spectrum is a varied and complex area of psychology; one which, as these myths demonstrate, is especially prone to myth and misinterpretation. Hopefully, though, as more and more people become aware of autism and its intricacies, the effects of these can be lessened. To reach that point, though, more must recognise how different each case of autism is – and how harmful baseless assumptions about autism are.
VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please call 02037405973 or email email@example.com for more information.
We are also officially recommended by Disability Confident as a step on achieving Employer status, please click here for more information.