Autism in the Public Eye: Claiming Humanity in a Sea of Stereotypes


Recently, a friend of mine (thanks M!) had sent to me a change.org link protesting the use of insensitive wording regarding descriptions of the mentally ill in society, found on the 2014 edition of a Russian social sciences textbook. The cited excerpt from the book is as follows, roughly transcribed using Google translate:

“Let’s think. Imagine a person from early childhood suffering from serious mental illness. He is not capable of teaching, to work, to create a family, to everything that constitutes the spiritual world of the individual. Before us, of course, a person, but some important aspects of human nature, he is deprived. What? The answer is obvious: those who associate it with the company; which make it public, social being. […]

In other words, he is not a person. Personality – a man endowed with a number of important social functions: the ability to learn, to work, to communicate with their own kind, to take care of them, to participate in society, to have spiritual interests, engage in creative work. Here we will talk about that man – a citizen. Note that a citizen is necessarily, a conscious, active, and social person.”

Now, it is no secret that the overall perceptions of mental illness in the world is far from ideal. In social settings, mental illnesses often do not come up as a topic of conversation due to the stigma and uncomfortable connotations it carries. The above quote is a succinct example of such connotations, as the author summarily labels all who suffer from mental illnesses as unable to live and interact in a dynamic human society. The author then goes on to form a social dichotomy between a “person” who is born with the ability to socialize, and a “non-person” whose ability to socialize is impaired. While the statement itself is preposterously false, blatantly ignorant of the fact that most people who suffer from mental illness still remain capable of functioning in society, the social dichotomy it puts forth represents the struggle of identity that those on the Autism Spectrum go through in their lives.

A focus group study by Neely-Barnes et al. interviewed parents of children with Autism regarding their experiences of day-to-day living in public. Accounts from eleven different parents revealed a number of similar themes of public perception. Parents of children with Autism report that people in public often comment on their child not as if they were afflicted with a condition, but as if they were merely unruly and misbehaving brats. Parents generally bear the blame for their child’s misbehavior, criticized for their inability to control them while in a public setting. The lack of overt physical symptoms in the majority of those with Autism often makes it necessary for parents to explain their child’s condition while out in the community. Rather than simply being children who choose to act out for the sake of rebellion, many parents find themselves having to explain concepts such as sensory overload and how their son or daughter’s method of coping–often manifested in conspicuous behaviors such as yelling or arm flapping–may be easily misinterpreted as temper tantrums by a misbehaving child.

While it is important to address misconceptions of Autism on an individual basis, such preconceived notions go beyond the common person’s sense of social thought. Popular media depictions of characters with Autism place an emphasis on the stereotype of a fragmented individual whose persona is seen as incomplete and missing parts that would otherwise make up a typical human being. In some cases, characters with Autism are also portrayed as complete humans encased in a metaphorical shell imprisoning their “true” form, yearning to break free to reclaim their humanity (Martin, 2013). Others highlight the use of a character’s unique talents to make up for their lost or incomplete humanity. This can be seen in the popular 1988 film Rain Man where the protagonist’s brother, who has high functioning Autism, uses his profound talents at counting and keeping track of objects to help the protagonist win money in Las Vegas. Regardless of the form, the predominant message by popular media centers on the notion of Autism not as a larger part of understanding and overcoming the human condition, but as a force whose sole purpose is to hold back the development of one’s full humanity.

Between the media’s portrayal of misinformed stereotypes and the common person’s vulnerability to making hasty judgments we must ask ourselves, is there a right way to seeing Autism? For every comment about the departure from normalness and the personal shortcomings of those living with Autism there are, indeed, many unfortunate truths. Many of those with Autism do find themselves struggling with the things that normal, neurotypical people take for granted. Everyday interactions such as shopping are planned out from the start to minimize the anxiety brought about by unexpected developments. Parties and hangouts that are seen as a typical person’s way of relaxing and reconnecting with friends are looked at as a challenge analogous to running a marathon. But how does this really differ from the human condition? When did we as a society develop the right to distinguish an individual as any less human based on the nature of their unique challenges and shortcomings?

The reality is, Autism isn’t a condition that robs its victim of his or her humanity. It is one of the many countless struggles that as a whole make up the fundamental nature of the human condition. We navigate this world not just with the sum total of our individual talents and skills, but also our individual quirks and shortcomings. The challenges of those with Autism and others struggling with mental illness are no different.

Because what makes us human isn’t merely defined by how we use our abilities, it is also defined by how we overcome our disabilities.

References:

Neely-Barnes, S. S., Hall, H. R., Roberts, R. J., & Graff, J. C. (2011). Parenting a Child With an Autism Spectrum Disorder: Public Perceptions and Parental Conceptualizations. Journal Of Family Social Work, 14(3), 208-225.

Martin, D. N., & Bassman, M. (2013). The Ever Changing Perception of Autism Spectrum Disorders in the United States. Explorations, 7, 160-170.

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