Did you know…
Of course you did. Everyone does. We’re told that autistic people are hugely valuable in the workplace. There are even helpful memes highlighting it to society and employers: you’re welcome, but know your place.
The intent is to be helpful and show that autism isn’t all about counting cards in casinos, but in speaking with a parent of a child with autism, the message wasn’t as supportive as it was intended to be.
Here’s a direct quote from the parent regarding the meme in the image: “The unemployment rate among those living with what we used to call Asperger’s Syndrome is huge, as are rates of depression, addiction, self-harm and suicide. A lot of this is because of posts like that meme. It’s well-meaning, but doesn’t move us too far forward from the ‘Rain Man’ stereotype.’’
‘‘Working in a supermarket making the shelves look pretty is a job that needs doing, there’s nothing wrong with it, but if we don’t allow and encourage autistic kids to develop all of their natural abilities, and challenge them to be better at those things that they find difficult those stats will never improve.”
What happens if someone with autism wants to do something wild like become a journalist or creative writer? What if they want to be a rock star?
With the loud noise, flashing lights, huge crowds, and intense social situations, the life of a rock star would be completely unsuitable for someone with autism. Right? And we haven’t even considered he need to be creative at writing lyrics and new melodies. No, the rock star path would definitely not be suited to Rain Man. That career choice is much better suited to someone like Courtney Love. Except, maybe not. Courtney Love, unlike the Rain Man stereotype, is a real-life person who was diagnosed with autism as a child. (Yes, the same Courtney Love from Hole, Mrs. Kurt Cobain, that Courtney Love.)
“I want every girl in the world to pick up a guitar and start screaming.” COURTNEY LOVE
Autism is a spectrum and can be mild, such as the case with Courtney Love. However, it’s still autism, and when we place a label of a disorder on someone, the label comes with expectations and stereotypes.
The parent quoted has a son who wants to be a journalist. His creative writing skills are amazing, and his English Literature teacher says he is already producing at undergraduate level, despite being in high school. He can analyze texts to a very high standard, and has an amazing attention to detail that also makes him great at maths and science. This is where we see the helpful memes reinforce a stereotype.
What happens if the editor of a paper interviews him and discovers he’s on the autism spectrum?
“Thanks for applying, son. You’ve got great skills, but I want to put you somewhere you’ll be happy so I’d like to offer you a position in data entry.”
Of course, the more cynical side of me says the kid would be crap at journalism because I know him well enough to know that he’ll report the truth and struggle with BS. Whether that’s down to autism or not is a whole different ball of wax.
The sad reality is that we sometimes make things worse by trying to make things better. Instead of presenting the idea that people with autism are people, with the same unique qualities as everyone else, we turn them into robots best suited for jobs requiring order, patterns, and accuracy.
In a different world, with a community of helpful people around her, Courtney Love could be writing computer code right now. There’s nothing wrong with writing computer code, there’s nothing wrong with stocking shelves… There IS something wrong with limiting someone to a role, and then highlighting that role they are most suited to, based on nothing but a diagnosis.
The sad thing about this is that we do it with dozens of disorders. I was recently discussing Tourette’s disorder with someone when they asked: “Why do they always swear?” But they don’t. They rarely do. The person was shocked. They’d only ever seen Tourette’s portrayed on a TV show and that highlighted coprolalia – swearing.
The only real difference between this post and the idea that people with Tourette’s swear is social acceptability. Making things neat and tidy benefits society, profanity doesn’t. However, to people with ASD, the social label of “can stack things really well”and “swears a lot” can be equally limiting and damaging.
It’s time to knock down those walls.