It’s November 2020. Sia is getting dragged for producing an insensitive dumpster fire of a film, crammed with harmful stereotypes and imagery that feels to many neurodivergent people like staring directly into the sun. And completely unaware of all of this, 30-year-old me is “coming out” to a few of my closest friends as autistic. I was overjoyed to finally have a decent explanation for my quirks, struggles, and experiences as a child, as well as a lead to find resources and expand my skills as an adult.

But negativity bias is a thing, of course. Biologically we’re primed to drift carelessly through a sea of positive reception, only to obsess over the very first sharp rock we happen to snag on.1 That’s why, two years later, I can’t fully articulate the words of support I received from friends in my group chat, but I can tell you exactly how another friend responded, word for word: “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” As if I had been hospitalized. As if something horrible had just happened to me.

This Autism Acceptance Month, a lot of well-meaning neurotypical2 people are going to retweet the first “awareness-y” post they see about how important it is to love each other’s differences, embrace diversity, and understand that autistic people are people, too. And that’s good! But these sorts of posts always seem to come from a place of sympathy or pity—sometimes for actual autistics, but a lot of the time, for their parents, caretakers, or “handlers.” These poor families are crumbling under the weight of autism! Don’t turn away from their suffering! Like this post if you care!

If you are one of the millions of people who’ve been fed the “autism-as-curse” narrative, I don’t blame you. It’s everywhere. Famous people are out here making movies about it to this day, but that isn’t the only narrative. You may be surprised to find that you already have a few autistic friends, coworkers, or family members. You just don’t know we’re autistic.

Why is the "One True Autistic" stereotype so prevalent, then?

Capitalism.

No, seriously. Telling desperate parents the only way their children can survive in the world is through expensive and degrading psychiatric evaluations; round-the-clock surveillance; and oftentimes abusive applied behavioral analysis with procedures uncannily similar to puppy training; is a lucrative business.

I'm not saying these procedures are 100% bad, 100% of the time. But I am saying that, in a world designed for the convenience of neurotypicals, reimagining societal structures to better accommodate neurodivergent people would be much harder than, say, telling you it's your fault for being neurodivergent and telling you to go fix yourself to better suit a broken system.

"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society" - Jiddu Krishnamurti

You won’t hear as much about allistic-passing adults because we can’t be singled out and convinced to go through this shit. Children can.

If you do hear about autistic adults, it’ll be from the angle of productivity. Business. Autistics hyperfocus on their “special interests,” so they make great programmers/engineers/employees was a common refrain in the early 2010s3. And while I’ve known several people—men, mostly—who fit this stereotype, it’s as if scientists located one lucrative avenue for which male autistics could make themselves useful and just…stopped. "We found the moneymaker, guys! Pack it up; our work here is done!"

So yeah. Capitalism.

Intersectional autistic identities are a thing.

You’d be surprised how many people are shocked by this statement. Read a few hundred psychological studies and you’ll begin to notice a pattern; before the field of psychology began to professionalize towards the mid-1800s, very few studies out of the United States collected gender demographics4, and to this day, almost none of them collect data on the race of their participants.5 Which, in the context of autism, leads people to treat the dominant research subject—cisgender white boys and men—as the universal model of an autistic person. Which leads the researchers themselves to study cisgender white boys and men even more, leaving everyone else out of the loop.

As a result, I’ve had multiple autistic men—all hyper-focused programmers, fitting the lionized mold—stand in front of me and say with the straightest of faces that I can’t possibly be autistic…because I’m bad at math; or work in Communications;  or make regular eye contact.

Friends, I am begging you to understand that people can be autistic and have a personality outside of the Sheldon tech bro stereotype Hollywood handed us. For me, “game recognizes game” — as someone who spends every waking moment hyperfocusing on psychology, I can sniff out another autistic person a mile away — but at the same time, I speak to everyone I meet with the understanding that the seven billion people on this rock are their own people, not an army on factory-issue stereotypes.

A screencap from the Netflix series "Atypical," showing a high school boy sitting on the floor, wearing headphones and reading, while a girl attempts to get his attention.
"Socially-inept studious white dude" is practically Hollywood's shorthand for autism.

For example, I am one of probably millions of queer, Black, neurodivergent women. Not a damned thing about my lived experience fits the proposed “universal” aesthetic. Growing up in the 1990s, mental health was for white people; psychologists were working overtime to pathologize Black trauma, not heal it.6 To this day, not even affluent white autistic women can access much of those precious grant funds, so I guess the rest of us are just gonna have to wait our turn.

My point is…Black, Latine, Asian, Indigenous, female, and trans autistics exist. Autistic CEOs, artists, wedding planners, and entrepreneurs exist. Autistic eye contact enjoyers exist. Many of us femmes learn to blend in better than most7, but we’re here just the same. And as we begin another April, rather than handing out microphones to the organizations and people who insist on speaking for us, I hope we can expand autistic awareness to celebrate #ActuallyAutistic culture, people, and projects even more, every single day.


References!

[1] Negativity bias is the phenomenon where unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions have a greater effect on our mental state than the neutral or positive ones.

[2] I'm using "neurotypical" and "allistic" interchangeably here; both describe a person whose neurological behaviors align seamlessly with the dominant paradigm in their society.

[3] Wei, X., Yu, J. W., Shattuck, P., McCracken, M., & Blackorby, J. (2013). Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Participation Among College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(7), 1539–1546. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-012-1700-z

[4] Rutherford, A., & Granek, L. (2010). Emergence and Development of the Psychology of Women. In J. C. Chrisler & D. R. McCreary (Eds.), Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology (pp. 19–41). Springer New York. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1465-1_2

[5] Lovelace, T. S., Comis, M. P., Tabb, J. M., & Oshokoya, O. E. (2021). Missing from the Narrative: A Seven-Decade Scoping Review of the Inclusion of Black Autistic Women and Girls in Autism Research. Behavior Analysis in Practice. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-021-00654-9

[6] Roberts, S. O., Bareket-Shavit, C., Dollins, F. A., Goldie, P. D., & Mortenson, E. (2020). Racial Inequality in Psychological Research: Trends of the Past and Recommendations for the Future. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(6), 1295–1309. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620927709

[7] Beck, J. S., Lundwall, R. A., Gabrielsen, T., Cox, J. C., & South, M. (2020). Looking good but feeling bad: “Camouflaging” behaviors and mental health in women with autistic traits. Autism, 24(4), 809–821. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361320912147