Hello folks! In this post I want to address the 3 most common misconceptions/stereotypes that I have heard over my years of existing. They are: autistic people lack empathy; autism only occurs in children and vaccines cause autism. The tl;dr would be: these are all not true, but I urge you to read on, if only for my description of anti-vaxxers.
Lack of empathy
I think this idea comes from the fact that many autistic people communicate differently with the neurotypical people around them. It isn’t so much as they don’t understand and relate to the person they are speaking to, it is more that they don’t respond in the way that the person was expecting. ASD causes difficulty in processing information being received, so if I were to use the example of myself, it may be that I don’t understand how you are feeling about what you are talking about. I will understand the words you are saying, but the subtext of how it impacted you and your emotional state might escape me. In addition to this, if I am struggling that day to express my thoughts properly, then it might be that I unintentionally choose the wrong words or don’t change my facial expression or tone of voice quite right, and that could further lead you to believe that I don’t care. The truth is, I do care. I care very much about other people and I want to help anyone I can. Sometimes my thoughts and feelings just get stuck inside me and I can’t work out how to express them, even when I know there is something I want to say. Then there are the times where I care about people and things so much that it comes out strangely and at odd moments.
The example I will always give to show that I am definitely an empathetic person is this: I was video calling my wonderful girlfriend one evening and we got onto the topic of the dinosaurs (one of my favourite topics!), and I was talking about what it would have been like when the fateful meteor hit the earth those 65-66 million years ago and wiped out all the dinosaurs, bar the avian line of course. I was describing how the environment would have changed in that instant and over the next few thousand years, and I found myself getting quite upset. I ended up crying because I was so sad that the dinosaurs would have been so scared and confused about what was happening. I was telling her about how some would have died instantly while some would have struggled on, in pain, for years. Then the images flooded my mind of young dinosaurs suddenly being separated from their parents and watching the world around them dissolve into chaos and carnage and not knowing what was happening. To her complete credit, she consoled me as best she could while trying to fight back a grin at the fact that I am apparently not over the extinction that occurred millions of years before I was ever born. I was really upset though that I couldn’t be there to help them all out and tell them what was happening and hold their paws and claws, so she calmed me down, told me some jokes and sensibly suggested that maybe it was time to go to sleep.
The point of that story is not solely to convince you that rapid climate change is something that is very scary and will cause huge extinctions and changes to life on earth. (Even though it is, and you should all be recycling and investing in more sustainable practices! The icon and personal hero that is Sir David Attenborough is urging everyone to get involved and start doing something, and if Dave says so then that should be a good enough reason for the whole world to immediately change its ways!) The point of the story was to show you that empathy is not mutually exclusive with autism. I even got slightly teary-eyed just writing this post and as much as Parasaurolophus and Pachycephalosaurus are the best creatures to ever have existed, I have never met any creature from either genus, and my crying at the thought of them dying, fairly conclusively demonstrates that I care about other beings. I would also like to point out that I am aware that Parasaurolophus was around in the early Cretaceous, and so would not have been subject to said extinction event, as that took place at the end of the Cretaceous.
(For more information on this, and just generally for a brilliant and fascinating read, I highly recommend ‘The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs’ by Steve Brusatte)
Autism only affects children
The fact that I am writing this should be a pretty good indicator to you that autism is not just a childhood condition. Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults. If you are diagnosed later in life, it also does not make you any less autistic. All it means is that you grew up without people noticing, and probably developed some pretty unhealthy coping mechanisms along the way. When you are a young child, everything is new, and each day is a larger proportion of your existence than a day is when you are older. You have to learn all these new skills from tying your shoes to spending a day in a classroom of loud, annoying people, and so you are likely to be overwhelmed and finding things difficult whether you have autism or not. However, if you are autistic then you will be finding it extra super-duper difficult because you will also be trying to understand social cues, emotions, expressions, interactions etc. Therefore, if you act out or those around you with some knowledge or education in autism notice that you are struggling, then you are more likely to get help and a diagnosis sooner. However, sometimes people don’t act out when they are struggling. Sometimes they turn it inwards and try to disguise their difficulty, and sometimes they don’t act out in a way that gets them help, they just act out in a way that gets them labelled as “troublesome”.
Whatever method of coping the person uses, they are still autistic, except one of them gets them intervention and coping tools earlier, while the others mean they have to learn how to manage it themselves. These people might not be diagnosed until later in life, but they were still autistic as children, and those that were diagnosed earlier are still autistic as adults. A fairly fundamental part of human growth is the idea that a person generally goes from childhood to adulthood without spontaneously combusting or having an entire change of personality. When I woke up on my 18th birthday, I was still the same person as I was the previous day, with perhaps a few changes to my individual cells. There was no sudden change in how I viewed the world because nothing had changed. I was autistic before I fell asleep, and I have continued to be autistic ever since I woke up.
Another thing to consider is that when you are a child, you are less practiced in living in the world, and so you might get overwhelmed more easily, often because the situations are newer and you don’t have as much control over your own life. As an adult, I have had years of practice in different situations, and I am better aware of how I can manage different scenarios and what my limits are. I can also choose when I want to do something that I find difficult. If I am tired or overwhelmed then I luckily have very understanding friends that will be absolutely fine with me having to cancel because I am not able to do something that we planned. However as a child, you are often just told “you’ll enjoy it when you get there”, or even called lazy if you express that you can’t go to a family gathering or something that has already been arranged. I know I was told this by my parents, and that isn’t because they were trying to be mean or wanted me to find it difficult, they just didn’t know I was autistic at the time and don’t experience the world in the same way I do. So as a child, I and other autistic people are often forced into situations that we would avoid as adults, and so while autism may seem more prevalent in children, it is just that you are less likely to see autistic adults when they are distressed. A.k.a. when you might realise they are autistic. Remember that autism is an invisible disability, and so you will likely only know that someone is autistic if they are struggling to control it or you are told that fact.
Vaccines cause autism
No, they don’t and if you still think this then you are as thick as the lead needed to contain radioactive waste, and nothing I can say will change your mind. I just urge you to listen to actual medical professionals instead of whatever trash article you are reading, and stop acting as though you and all your Karen friends know better than years of medical research and training, just because you managed to find some poorly written, disability-hating, faux-science, scam artist’s article who are tying to convince you that lavender oil will give your baby a better immune system than proven medicine. Lavender is lovely and is a smell I associate with my Grandma who I love very dearly, but it is not a substitute for any sort of medicine, and my Grandma would beat you up if you said that. (She wouldn’t really but she would argue with you, and you don’t want to argue with Grandma!)
If you ever try to convince me that an essential oil is better for me or anyone else than vaccinations, then I will personally make it my mission to inconvenience you in your everyday life. I won’t indulge you in an argument, nor will I wish you any ill thoughts. All I would want is for you to change your mind and educate yourself. What I will do however is, in some ways, even more irritating than just the cheap, nasty message on social media which you anti-vaxxers oh so love. Nope, my plan is that I will employ your friends and family to start putting small pebbles in your shoes, just so every time you put on a shoe you will have to remove a pebble. I will even ask them to put in really small pebbles so that you don’t notice at first, and so when you are walking you will eventually realise that you have a stone in your shoe which you have to stop remove. I will start collecting small pebbles, specifically so that all your shoes will have them. And when you think you have removed them all, there will always be more pebbles waiting in the wings, just biding their time until that shoe is out of your sight. That way you will always be reminded of Sarah “The Pebble” Henderson who will be laughing to herself at the thought of you cursing as you take off your shoe to remove the tiny piece of rock that you will never properly be able to find. I’ll even find a way of getting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in on it as well, so that he can cover the people with really big shoes who need whole rocks put into them!
So, as you are stumbling around in your pebble-shoe, I would also ask you – if it were even true that vaccines cause autism – why on earth you think that risking your child catching potentially fatal illnesses such as polio and the measles is preferable to your child having autism? I can tell you with 100% certainty that my family and friends prefer me alive and autistic rather than dead, however much trouble or worry I have caused. I do not have any young people dependent on me, but if you think having a potentially dead child is better than having a disabled one, then you are not fit to be a parent. End of story. I am aware that often autism coincides with learning difficulties or physical health conditions that can be tricky to manage, but as a parent, you chose to bring that child into existence and continue to look after them, knowing that conditions like this occur, and so it is your job to care for them and love them whatever difficulties they may have. You do not get a medal for doing the bare minimum of looking after your own child. You have to give them food, water, shelter, clothing and MEDICAL CARE, otherwise you are not meeting your legal duties as a caregiver and are breaking the law. The day that endangering your children by not vaccinating them becomes a crime, will be a day of celebration and I will be baking a cake and having a picnic. If you are an anti-vaxxer then you need to read a book, sort your life out and stop being such an entitled prick. I would recommend starting with a look in any basic human biology book which explains what a vaccination actually is and why we need them, but if that is too difficult then I am sure there is a local 11-year-old who can dumb it down for you.
Okay, I feel this is probably a good place to stop as the tone of this post is getting progressively angrier, and I am having to try harder and harder to not use a few choice swear words. I wanted to give my opinion on these misconceptions, as I have heard them a few times and they are blatantly not true. Autism is very much a spectrum condition, and so the phrase that I like to use is “If you have met one autistic person, then you have only met one autistic person.” I am as different as the next person, whether they have autism or not, and while all us autistic folk share some common symptoms and brain-structure-connection-stuff, we are all independent people with varied interests and lives. To make sweeping generalisations, such as the ones explored above, is foolhardy and serves no purpose except to confuse people. (Although I think the same can be said about all stereotypes. For example, when I realised I was gay I was genuinely confused because I am not butch, whereas the stereotype was that lesbians all have short hair and wear tank tops.) So, in conclusion, I would finish off this extremely lengthy post by saying stereotypes suck and vaccinate your kids and pets! Stay safe and remember to put pebbles in the shoes of people who are annoying you.