If you were to ask strangers on the street what their impressions of autistic people are, you'd probably hear the same old crap: Autistic people are geeks, have amazing memories, don't have many feelings, can't show empathy, have few, if any relationships or friendships, and are essentially emotionless robots.
This prototypical autistic person would have the appearance of a Milhouse Van Houten–style dork and, in terms of personality, be somewhere between Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock.
This is the pervading view of autism and autistic people. And it's a load of shit.
Autism specifically is a disorder (not an illness—autism on its own is not a mental health problem or a disability) where the main issue is an inability to understand emotions and nonverbal communication. Where most people can convey their mood by their demeanor, tone of voice, and facial expressions, an autistic person will struggle to grasp that, especially at an early age. Autism is in effect mindblindness, making it hard to form relationships and get on other people's wavelengths.
I myself have Asperger's syndrome. On the autism spectrum, which starts from being neurotypical on one end to full-blown autistic on the other, Asperger's is nearer to autism than neurotypical—it's autism light, basically.
When it comes to emotions—and I can't emphasize this enough—it is a myth that autistic people don't feel any. In fact, the opposite is true. In the words of Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society's Centre for Autism in the UK, autistic people "actually often feel emotions more intensely than their peers due to over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, or colors." So we do feel emotions—the alienation comes because it's very difficult for us to express or interpret them.
A lot of these mistruths derive from how autistic folk simply don't express much emotion. As Sarah Hendrickx, an author and speaker on autism, says, "I think a big part of this misnomer is that because we sometimes don't make many facial expressions or do much social smiling, people presume we are 'blank' or 'flat' inside as well." Impressions, truly in this case, can be deceiving.
For example: You might smile at autistic people, and we won't smile back. Why? Not because we dislike you or because we don't have feelings or even because you have bad breath, but because we don't get the message, conveyed through a smile, that we're supposed to be friendly to you.
I have other, personal, examples of this sort of behavior. At primary school I once made a friend cry by saying his painting was "rubbish." I didn't understand that would upset him. Another time I didn't get my dad anything for Father's Day, thinking he wouldn't care. Well, he did care and was devastated that I didn't even get him a card.
On a daily basis I have stuttering conversations, worry I've upset people when I haven't, get confused when people don't specify things, nearly walk into people because I can't work out which way they want to go past me, and suffer from prolonged tiredness because of the mental energy expended trying to understand all this. All these things, to me at least, are part and parcel of having Asperger's syndrome.
It's these issues that have a negative impact on the lives of millions of people who have autism. When you struggle to have normal conversations with others or form relationships and friendships, when you are mocked and ridiculed for your eccentricities and strange habits by those who don't know better, it catches up with you.
Often, people think you're just being rude. As Hendrickx puts it, "If you're an intellectually able person with autism and you make a faux pas the automatic assumption is that you are smart enough to know and therefore have done it on purpose." But speaking from my own experience, nothing could be further from the truth.
Autism is a hidden disability, invisible to the naked eye, so other people don't see what we go through.
It also means that we ourselves may not know which disorder we have, which can be crippling. Hundreds of thousands of people aren't diagnosed until late in life, if we're diagnosed at all, because autism is invisible and makes it hard to express how we feel to friends, family, and doctors.
Not knowing why we behave the way we do, when we behave so unusually compared to everyone else, can sometimes be devastating to our mental health and too often leads to varying states of sadness, loneliness, apathy, and depression.
The stats are bleak, upsetting, and damning. According to Povey, "A shocking 63 percent of children and young people with autism we surveyed in 2012 told us they had experienced bullying at school." Other stats provided by the National Autistic Society state that one in five autistic children at school has been excluded, only 15 percent of autistic adults are in full-time employment, and 51 percent of autistic adults have had no access to either full-time work or benefits.
Another study, published in The Lancet psychiatry journal, came up with figures that stated 31 percent of the study's respondents (who had Asperger's syndrome) self-reported depression and an astonishing 66 percent self-reported that they had considered suicide. Tony Attwood, the world's leading expert on Asperger's syndrome, stated in his guide to autism that a third of people with Asperger's had depression, which ties in neatly with the figure mentioned above.
Those figures show how easy it is to become nihilistic and depressed. It's understandable, too—when you struggle on for so long, out of work, out of pocket, having to rely on either benefits or your parents for money and a place to live, too poor to enjoy yourself and without a companion to share your experiences with, it's a vicious cycle. You end up giving up. Apathy sets in and cripples you.
I speak here from experience. While I don't believe I have ever suffered from depression, I have gone through prolonged periods when I felt lifeless, suffering with seemingly never-ending anxiety. For months on end after starting my first full-time job I was in a bad state: Constantly nervous, worrying and unable to enjoy myself, my appearance and hygiene went downhill. I would only wash two or three times a week, wearing a huge fleece at work that was covered in both cat hair and my own filthy, unkempt long hair.
Christmas 2012 was a low point—I'd been feeling anxious for a fortnight, then had a panic attack a matter of days before Christmas, the worst panic attack I've ever had and the first one in which I actually, for a split second, feared for my sanity. "Make it stop" was the phrase I kept on repeating in my head. Eventually, it did.
Even so, it was Boxing Day before I felt reasonable again, my feelings made worse by it being Christmas and having to put on a happy facade for my family. I was helped massively by the the National Autistic Society providing an anonymous email service, which I used to detail my state of mind. They replied with advice and a warmth that really, really helped.
I attribute all that to anxiety rather than depression—even at my worst, I could come up occasionally with positive thoughts. I always thought I'd improve, get out of the mess I was in. Luckily enough for me, I did. But without the love and support of my family, I may have just given up. It evidently happens to others, and I'm fortunate, so far, to have avoided the same fate.
If we're to help future generations overcome these issues, we need more information and much more understanding of autism in the public domain so people can get the help they need. As Povey says, "We need to increase understanding of the condition in every sector of society, from health and social care to culture and media."
Misconceptions about autism often derive from what people see on TV and in film. Rain Man, for example, is probably the most famous picture of autism that's ever been painted, and yet it portrays autism about as accurately as Braveheart portrays Scottish history. It portrays savant syndrome, not autism—a big difference, given that only around 50 percent of savants are autistic, or on the flip side, as Povey states, "Only about two in 200 individuals with autism have an accompanying special ability."
One of the biggest problems is, as Hendrickx says, that "TV and films will always go for the condensed super-concentrated version because that's more interesting than someone who doesn't have so many obvious 'quirks.'" Perhaps there's an element of wanting to spell out that someone is autistic by signaling it very obviously rather than being subtle about it, which leads to inaccurate portrayals.
Thankfully there are more accurate depictions of autism in popular culture—Abed in Community,for example. Saga Noren in The Bridge is another favorite, as she's a great character accurately portrayed, plus she's female—females, on screen and in real life, are majorly underrepresented in depictions of autism. Generally, progress is being made on the small screen, which can only be promising for the big screen and for autistic audiences.
Looking to the media, autistic people need to be given a bit more hope. As debilitating as the disorder can be, it can also result in amazing human achievements. Autistic people are talented, gifted, armed with incredible levels of focus and concentration and a superb memory for facts, numbers, diagrams, and other useful items.
Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, and Isaac Newton have all been suspected, posthumously, of having varying forms of autism: three of the most important scientists and pioneers the world has ever seen.
Autistic people naturally have higher than average IQs and tend to do well academically. If given the help, support, love, affection, and understanding necessary, people with autism won't face a life of unhappiness scaling to near-suicidal depression. We can form relationships, live happily, and make worthwhile contributions to society.
Autistic people just need a bit of understanding. We're not emotionless robots. We are human beings.
Follow Jack Howes on Twitter