Many groups are misrepresented in our society. For instance, inner-city minorities are often stereotyped as highly athletic or musically gifted. “Model minorities” are often stereotyped as over-achievers. Yet at the same time, most people acknowledge one way or another that many inner-city minorities live in poverty and that model minorities are varied in many aspects of life.
However, based on some questionable stereotypes that Autistics are either savants or highly specialized introverts, an entire subculture and movement was formed around this assumption. As diagnoses of Autism and Asperger’s have exploded over the past 20 years, the term seems to apply to everyone nowadays who isn’t extremely social. To quote a New York Magazine article,
“The diagnosis is everywhere: Facebook’s former head of engineering has stated that Mark Zuckerberg has “a touch of the Asperger’s.” Time suggested that the intensely awkward Bill Gates is autistic; a biographer of Warren Buffett wrote that the Oracle of Omaha, with his prodigious memory and “fascination with numbers,” has “a vaguely autistic aura.”…”
Even some PhD psychologists look towards this claim. Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University psychology professor, strongly believes that some historical figures in Math and Science might have been on the spectrum, yet his research only focuses on certain subsets of the population. Tony Attwood, a PhD psychologist, once wrote a book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome where he said that everything from PhD research to the trades to the military was a good fit for those on the spectrum, giving very vague claims.
What makes it unusually interesting is that there are also Autistics themselves that stereotype nearly every autistic as a profound genius. Temple Grandin for instance, a famous slaughterhouse designer who has even written books about Autism claims that Autism is the key factor in technological progress. (http://jonathans-stories.com/non-fiction/autism-genetics.html) John Robison, who was once a sound engineer for nationally-renowned bands, wrote in his autobiography Look Me in the Eye that “A touch of Asperger’s is an essential part of much creative genius” (Ch. 24, last sentence). (Editor’s Note: Please see Robison’s response to this statement in the comments below as he feels it has been taken out of context.)
Another example is that an entire forum with over 80,000 members, WrongPlanet (wrongplanet.net), was built on this view. Until a few years ago, the site footer stated “Asperger’s is not a disease”. On the front page, there was much talk of neurodiversity with respect to a small handful of highly successful individuals on the spectrum. Recently however, traffic has started to decline.
These are all staggering assumptions lacking in evidence. Of course, as mentioned above, it is possible to be autistic and successful. But actual scientific research tends to go towards the opposite direction. For instance, Drexel University has claimed that 1 in three young autistic adults are disconnected from work and school.
This stereotype has affected my life negatively. I didn’t learn about Asperger’s until I was 15, and refused to seek help for five years after. I could add numbers really fast as a child, but I invested a lot of time in it and my parents are highly educated. However, I was disorganized, which only became a problem in high school. Because of this stereotype, I was told for years by various individuals that it was my own fault that I couldn’t keep up with the growing amounts of work.
As for the seemingly endless list of geniuses on the spectrum, one such opponent of this claim is the controversial pro-cure advocate on the spectrum, Jonathan Mitchell. He once wrote an essay “Undiagnosing Einstein, Jefferson, and Gates” noting that Einstein, for instance, outgrew his social deficiencies in adulthood, and that Gates had excellent marketing skills
Autism Speaks on the other hand also has problems with representation, which ended up strengthening the anti-cure mindset. Jonathan Mitchell on his personal blog agreed that there is a profound underrepresentation of pro-cure autistics in Autism Speaks. He also agreed that the remark made by a woman in one of their videos about wanting to drive off a bridge with her autistic daughter was a terrible thing to say on camera. However, Autism Speaks has hopefully moved past those atrocities. Many neurodiversity advocates claim that it is a “propaganda machine”, never mind that many families that donate have profoundly impared children.
This stereotype is still alive and influential today. For instance, now there are many articles claiming that all male nerds are the center of society, with statements from Dr Nerdlove on his blog such as
“Nerd culture is culture, period… Our entire lives – from work to friendships to romance – take place online now. Joss Whedon is in charge of one of the most ambitious and profitable movie franchises of all time; Elon Musk is positioning himself as a real life Tony Stark; Bill Gates dominated our computers…”
These statements seem to suggest that socially awkward people will earn reparations later in life, when the opposite is usually true. And interestingly enough, many autistics seem to believe this with no evidence. The only way to overcome this stereotype is to undergo a major paradigm shift in our society.
Yuval Levental is a Master’s Student in Electrical Engineering. In his free time, he enjoys learning about different cultures, neuroscience, and philosophy.
Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed by Autism Daily Newscast Contributors are their own.