Asperger’s Syndrome: Can Positive Stereotypes Ever Be A Good Thing?

by Vince Jeevar
24th Jul 2019

When you think of the 3 most common traits of people with Asperger’s Syndrome (now called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)), what comes to mind?


What about jobs? Are there any that you think they’d be particularly good at? Or bad?

As humans it’s natural for us to want to put people in boxes. But not everybody fits into them. And talents can often be found in the most unlikely places.

ASD is a prime example of this.

Stereotypes can be good or bad and what’s interesting about ASD is that one of the traits that is considered to be the most positive for attracting an employer, can sometimes lead to a career that isn’t the best one for you.

A common trait many people on the Autism Spectrum have is hyper attention to detail, and is often considered attractive to employers. But what if you / your child wants to pursue a career in journalism or creative writing? 

Take Kate – a parent who I had exactly this discussion with. Her son, Sam, recently graduated from high school. Sam’s creative writing is extraordinary. According to his English Literature teacher, he is already at undergraduate level, and can analyze texts to an exceptional standard, partly thanks to his amazing attention to detail, which also makes him great at maths and science. This is where we see debates like this reinforce the stereotype.

Children with ASD are automatically assumed to be good at tasks involving strategy, attention to detail, numbers… anything linear with a clear and definite answer. Creativity, on the other hand, they shouldn’t be good at. It’s not linear and requires imagination. There’s no definite answer – anything is possible – so this should make them uncomfortable and disrupt them emotionally. 

In some cases, yes. But not all.

Stereotypes like this (i.e. that children with ASD don’t have an imagination) can be hugely limiting. If an employer looked at Sam’s CV and saw ASD, they might write him off. Yet he has the ability to pursue a career in journalism, creative writing etc., better most other candidates.

They also have rippling social consequences… The unemployment rates among people with ASD is huge, as is depression, addiction, self-harm and suicide. 

Unfortunately, most articles that attempt to explain ASD are to blame. Although well-meaning, they don’t progress from the ‘Rain Man’ stereotype. Consequently, people with ASD often get stuck doing mundane jobs (e.g. in supermarkets), rather than ones that suit their talents.

The danger: if we don’t allow or encourage autistic children to develop all of their natural abilities, and challenge them to be better at the things they find difficult, then those stats will never improve.

Kate agrees. “People will shoot you down for what I say. There is a tendency to view ASD as a disability. True, there are huge challenges, but like any parents of any children we need to give them the tools to lead a fulfilled life”… “‘Rain Man’ helped to raise awareness, and that was good, but it’s a caricature and most articles show that to a large extent society hasn’t got beyond that caricature.”

But it’s not just with this disorder. Stereotypes play a key role in limiting the lives of people with dozens of other disorders too. Take Tourette’s. People’s automatic response is: “Why do they always swear?” But they don’t. They rarely do.

Why do they think that? Because of TV shows. 99% of the time, anybody with Tourette’s is portrayed as having Coprolalia (swearing) for sensationalism. The only real difference between the positive traits of ASD and the idea that people with Tourette’s swear is social acceptability. Making things neat and tidy benefits society, profanity doesn’t. The truth is that, for people with ASD, social labels like “is good at maths and linear tasks”is equally as limiting as “swears a lot.”

The solution: whenever you talk to anybody – disability or not – look at them as a person. See what traits theyare good at, or need help with. Not just the ones you expect. 

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