What Does Autism Look Like Anyway? 

When I reveal that I am autistic, or my mother does, we often get this response: “But you don’t look autistic!” Yes, I do. I got my formal diagnosis from the UCLA Medical Center as a child. Do you think I would lie to you? Why don’t you believe me? What does autism look like to you?

According to popular media, autism is usually depicted by a white cisgender male, and usually a child. They are often portrayed as some sort of savant as well. That is an extremely narrow and stereotypical view of autism, and it is not helpful when you reveal it to people to spread understanding among them.

Is it because I am a woman? I can assure you, autistic women exist. They often go into adulthood without their formal diagnosis, often waiting until their fifties to get this diagnosis, often when researching their own children’s or grandchildren’s diagnosis. Just because we are a smaller group does not mean we are nonexistent. That is just ridiculous to think.

Is it because I am an adult? Usually autism is given a child’s face. Also, that person is in meltdown or other extreme distress. We are not always having meltdowns. Meltdowns are usually caused by a trigger. It could be a sight, sound, smell, taste or touch. If you need something to compare the trigger to, look not further than an addiction. Or PTSD. Or various other dynamics which involve avoiding triggers to stay sane.

(The following does not apply to me, but this is often a reason people do not “look autistic.”)

Is it because of my race? There may be more formal diagnosis among white people, but there is also an existence around every known society. I recently saw an episode of Chicago Med with an autistic doctor played by somebody who was black. (Yes, I do say “black.” It’s perfectly OK to see what race a person is. What is not OK is to assign a lesser or greater value to that race.) I applaud Chicago Med for that casting choice. It gives a sort of face to an entire race of autistic people not represented in media. Not to mention that most races are given say, one token representation, and it certainly is usually not with neurodiversity. You usually have to be white for that.

Is it because of my gender identity? Is it my sexual orientation? I could go on and on about how a narrow stereotype locks many people out of perceptions of autism, or various other conditions for that matter.

(Back to what applies to me again…)

Open your minds, people. Autism is not equipped with a specific physical “look” or “act” to be obvious. A specific facial expression or profile does not exist in the autistic spectrum.

When one specific trait, such as autism, is used to describe a group of people, try not to be surprised when the traits not used to describe them vary widely. It would have to call on other traits to be mentioned in common to get a grasp of the people you are describing. Don’t put people into boxes. They don’t fit.

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