Addressing the Stigmas Surrounding Autism
The experiences about to be mentioned in this article were specifically undergone by me, an autistic individual. However, this does not mean that all autistic individuals have gone through the same issues. I have met students on the autistic spectrum who (seemingly) have had a much easier life than I have, and I have met autistic students who have had to struggle more than I probably will ever have to. No autistic individual is the same as another, but all autistic individuals have most likely had to deal with similar stigmas that are prevalent within our society to some extent.
→ Autism: Breaking It Down
The first thing I believe every autistic individual wants society to understand is that we are human too. Just like any other human being, we are unique with our own strengths and weaknesses, and have different qualities that make us… us. Yet ironically, non-autistic individuals seem to treat autism as an idiosyncratic phenomenon. Many people often look at autistic individuals with contempt, fear, and an intention to escape them at any time possible. I wish I could say that all these people were just too quick to judge, but many simply have certain insecurities about autistic individuals. This does not make their mistreatment of autistic individuals okay, but it is important to consider the “other side” when attempting to solve the issues that autistic people deal with in society.
So, why do so many individuals have issues with autistic people? Much of this is due to the difference in brain-wiring that autistic students possess. Our brains all speak a different language, but autistic people tend to have brains that are focused on certain things. For example, if you were to start talking to me about computers and programming, you probably would find it hard to stop the conversation, as I am very fascinated by this topic. However, I tend to be indifferent to topics like the newest Usher song, fancy clothing lines, or the sex life of Kylie Jenner. This doesn’t mean I would ignore someone talking to me about these things, but it means that I would know very little about these topics, so there would be very little to talk to me about.
This issue of different brains poses a popular misconception though, which is that autistic individuals lack empathy. Essentially, what psychologists try to suggest is that we do not have the capacity or interest to put ourselves in the position of other people, yet this cannot be further from the truth. It is certainly very easy to paint a broad brush and say that autistic individuals are at fault for their “lack of empathy”, yet the reality is that often people are more non-empathetic towards autistic individuals than we are to them. On top of having autism myself, I have met a number of talented autistic individuals and gotten to know all of them. They are incredibly emotional just like myself, but because of that, they are willing to bend over backwards for other people and accommodate their wishes. Unfortunately, society is not always willing to do the same.
→ What Are The Problems?
When autistic people are bullied, harassed, or excluded/ostracized by members of society, little thought is given to their feelings. Yet when autistic individuals like myself react to being treated with hate and indifference, it is always our fault in the eyes of society. Autistic people like myself try our level best to make people happy, yet I can’t say many people do the same for us. In fact, many people tend to view autists as “problems” or “deviations from the social norm”.
This flawed idea that autistic individuals are problems leads to broken relationships between them and others in society, deals them an unfair amount of stress/anxiety, and tempts others to view autism and its proprietors with fear. Much of this mindset is cultivated early on in our society, especially in educational facilities. I cannot verbally express my traumatic memories of times that I used to be called into the principal’s office and punished both emotionally and legislatively without anyone considering my position. Yet, when other students bullied me or excluded me from events, no person within my school administration batted an eye. I was placed in treatment facility after treatment facility, and very little was asked of what I wanted for my life/education. This is how a lot of (but not all) school administrations deal with autism, and who can blame society, if our own education system approaches autism as a problem? The grade-school education system assumes that you can know everything about an autistic child simply from a list of behaviors that are documented, and as such, little is done to truly empathize with and understand the autistic student.
→ How Do We Change?
What if society changed the way that it approaches autism? We could start at our grade school education system, holding bullies accountable for their actions, and educating students about what autism truly is, encouraging them to accept and befriend autistic individuals instead of pushing them away. When there are conflicts, school personnel can sit down with both the autistic person and the other side, and rather than place blame on any party, try to find common-ground, a means for resolution, and encourage both parties to think intuitively about problem-solving in the future. Most importantly, if you feel discomfort due to the actions of an autistic person, talk to him/her/them and address the reason you are uncomfortable with their behavior. No autistic person is perfect, but if we are told we’re hurting someone or making them uncomfortable, we will do our best to refrain from any actions that may be the culprit of these issues. Similarly, we as autistic people need to feel free and speak about the stigmas and the problems that we deal with, and society has an obligation to listen.
If you know of someone with autism, please try to befriend them. Stand up for autistic people who are excluded, bullied or forgotten. If you are someone with autism, I strongly admire your resilience in facing social stigmas, and I encourage you to talk about them, should you feel comfortable enough to do so.