This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic.
When most people think of an autistic person, they think of a young, nonverbal, white boy or Rain Man or Temple Grandin or Sheldon Cooper. No matter which image is conjured to mind, most people have a pretty limited idea of what autism looks like. To most people, this probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but this limited representation of autism in the media has real world consequences. Today we’re going to look at why accurate representations of autism in the media are so important and what we can do about it.
One of the main ways that a lack of representation harms autistic people is that it can affect who gets diagnosed. Due to the stereotype of autism affecting young, white, cisboys, many who do not fit this stereotype go undiagnosed. It has been shown that women and people assigned female at birth, are less likely to be diagnosed than men or those assigned male at birth. Contrary to popular belief, this is not due to women being less likely to be autistic, but rather oversights in the diagnostic process. Women are more likely to exhibit atypical autistic traits and this, combined with the stereotype that women are less likely to be autistic, leads to a lot of women and AFAB people being missed during childhood as well as facing difficulties later in life when seeking a diagnosis. There are women who are clearly autistic who have been denied diagnosis because they don’t fit the stereotypes and were dealing with incompetent professionals.
Similarly, people of color are far less likely to be diagnosed that white people. Studies show that white children are 30% more likely to receive a diagnosis than Black children and 50% more likely to receive a diagnosis than Hispanic children despite research showing that there are no racial disparities with autism. Racial stereotypes make it so that autistic children of color are more likely to be labeled as problem children or disruptive rather than receiving an actual diagnosis. This prevents them from receiving the help they need and deserve.
These discrepancies in diagnosis typically stem from stereotypes of autism which have developed, at least in part, due to media representations of autism. Most canonly autistic characters are white and most are male. There is minimal representation of people of other genders or races on TV or in movies. Further, the representation that does exist of autistic people tends to portray us as either super geniuses who are a little quirky or nonverbal burdens upon those around us. There are very, very few autistic characters who are nuanced and well balanced. These narrow representations of autism that pepper our media contribute to the erasure of autistic people who do not fit the stereotypes, which is most of us.
So often, autistic people upon revealing that they are autistic are faced with comments like “But you don’t look autistic!” or “You don’t seem autistic!” These comments, while often well-intentioned, can be very hurtful to the autistic people who must face them. We are so often denied our identities because we do not fit the idea of autism that others hold because their concepts of autism have been so greatly shaped by stereotypes of autism and fear mongering from Autism Speaks. The general public has no idea what autism actually looks like, in large part, due to the narrow representation of autism in the media.
If we want the world to become more accepting, accommodating, and accessible to autistic people, then we need to develop more nuanced representations of autism in the media. We need to see more Black autistic characters and more Hispanic autistic characters and more Asian autistic characters. We need more autistic women. We need autistic trans women and autistic trans men and autistic nonbinary characters. We need more diversity in the mixes of traits in our autistic characters. We need autistic characters who are verbal most of the time but sometimes can’t talk and flap their hands and have meltdowns. We need autistic characters who are nonverbal and have jobs through computers and communicate through AAC. We need autistic characters with variance. We need to show the diversity and complexity of the autistic spectrum. We need real representation.