Those on the Spectrum Might be the Most Misrepresented Group in Today’s Society

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Albert Einstein, 1952 letter

Many groups are misrepresented in our society.  For instance, inner-city minorities are often stereotyped as highly athletic or musically gifted.  “Model minorities” are often stereotyped as over-achievers.  Yet at the same time, most people acknowledge one way or another that many inner-city minorities live in poverty and that model minorities are varied in many aspects of life.

However, based on some questionable stereotypes that Autistics are either savants or highly specialized introverts, an entire subculture and movement was formed around this assumption.  As diagnoses of Autism and Asperger’s have exploded over the past 20 years, the term seems to apply to everyone nowadays who isn’t extremely social.  To quote a New York Magazine article,

“The diagnosis is everywhere: Facebook’s former head of engineering has stated that Mark Zuckerberg has “a touch of the Asperger’s.” Time suggested that the intensely awkward Bill Gates is autistic; a biographer of Warren Buffett wrote that the Oracle of Omaha, with his prodigious memory and “fascination with numbers,” has “a vaguely autistic aura.”…”

Even some PhD psychologists look towards this claim.  Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University psychology professor, strongly believes that some historical figures in Math and Science might have been on the spectrum, yet his research only focuses on certain subsets of the population.  Tony Attwood, a PhD psychologist, once wrote a book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome where he said that everything from PhD research to the trades to the military was a good fit for those on the spectrum, giving very vague claims.

What makes it unusually interesting is that there are also Autistics themselves that stereotype nearly every autistic as a profound genius.  Temple Grandin for instance, a famous slaughterhouse designer who has even written books about Autism claims that Autism is the key factor in technological progress. (http://jonathans-stories.com/non-fiction/autism-genetics.html)  John Robison, who was once a sound engineer for nationally-renowned bands, wrote in his autobiography Look Me in the Eye that “A touch of Asperger’s is an essential part of much creative genius” (Ch. 24, last sentence). (Editor’s Note: Please see Robison’s response to this statement in the comments below as he feels it has been taken out of context.)

Another example is that an entire forum with over 80,000 members, WrongPlanet (wrongplanet.net), was built on this view.  Until a few years ago, the site footer stated “Asperger’s is not a disease”.  On the front page, there was much talk of neurodiversity with respect to a small handful of highly successful individuals on the spectrum.  Recently however, traffic has started to decline.

These are all staggering assumptions lacking in evidence.  Of course, as mentioned above, it is possible to be autistic and successful.  But actual scientific research tends to go towards the opposite direction.  For instance, Drexel University has claimed that 1 in three young autistic adults are disconnected from work and school.

This stereotype has affected my life negatively.  I didn’t learn about Asperger’s until I was 15, and refused to seek help for five years after.  I could add numbers really fast as a child, but I invested a lot of time in it and my parents are highly educated.  However, I was disorganized, which only became a problem in high school.  Because of this stereotype, I was told for years by various individuals that it was my own fault that I couldn’t keep up with the growing amounts of work.

As for the seemingly endless list of geniuses on the spectrum, one such opponent of this claim is the controversial pro-cure advocate on the spectrum, Jonathan Mitchell.  He once wrote an essay “Undiagnosing Einstein, Jefferson, and Gates” noting that Einstein, for instance, outgrew his social deficiencies in adulthood, and that Gates had excellent marketing skills

Autism Speaks on the other hand also has problems with representation, which ended up strengthening the anti-cure mindset.  Jonathan Mitchell on his personal blog agreed that there is a profound underrepresentation of pro-cure autistics in Autism Speaks.  He also agreed that the remark made by a woman in one of their videos about wanting to drive off a bridge with her autistic daughter was a terrible thing to say on camera.  However, Autism Speaks has hopefully moved past those atrocities.  Many neurodiversity advocates claim that it is a “propaganda machine”, never mind that many families that donate have profoundly impared children.

This stereotype is still alive and influential today.  For instance, now there are many articles claiming that all male nerds are the center of society, with statements from Dr Nerdlove on his blog such as

“Nerd culture is culture, period… Our entire lives – from work to friendships to romance – take place online now. Joss Whedon is in charge of one of the most ambitious and profitable movie franchises of all time; Elon Musk is positioning himself as a real life Tony Stark; Bill Gates dominated our computers…”

These statements seem to suggest that socially awkward people will earn reparations later in life, when the opposite is usually true.  And interestingly enough, many autistics seem to believe this with no evidence.  The only way to overcome this stereotype is to undergo a major paradigm shift in our society.

Yuval Levental 150x150 WrongPlanet Pageview Count hits a Profound All Time Low due to lack of adequate autism representationAbout Yuval Levental

Yuval Levental is a Master’s Student in Electrical Engineering.  In his free time, he enjoys learning about different cultures, neuroscience, and philosophy.

 

 

Editor’s Note:  Opinions expressed by Autism Daily Newscast Contributors are their own.

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Comments

  1. John Elder Robison says:

    The quote attributed to me is incomplete, and as such, misleading. The actual passage in the book read, “Recent articles suggest that a touch of Asperger’s is an essential part of much creative genius.” While that statement is true – many contemporaneous articles make such reference – it is important to note that the original source of the quote was Dr. Hans Asperger himself. When reviewing the outcomes of his 1938 patients, Dr Asperger noted that one went on to win a Nobel Prize, and two to distinguished professorships. So with respect to the body of patients from which Asperger’s was originally defined, that would seem to be a fair statement.

    Later reviews found the symptoms described by Drs. Kanner and Asperger as essentially indistinguishable, though Asperger’s was later taken to mean a more mild form of autism.

    It does not in any way suggest that all or even most people with this diagnosis will achieve such success; merely that some will and that the Asperger’s is in some way instrumental in that success, when it happens.

    Whatever you think about autism, gifts, and success, it is undeniable that some autistic people are profoundly disabled by the condition, and they seek relief. Recognizing the gifts autism may bring to some does not deny the reality of the disability it brings, too.

    • Roberta Hill Roberta Hill says:

      Thank you for the clarification and your comment.

    • Yuval Levental says:

      Thanks for replying.

      I remember now that we talked about this before. I don’t know if I should have included your quote, as it said “a touch of Asperger’s”, not “Asperger’s”, so I exaggerated there. Asperger’s syndrome as discovered by Dr. Asperger was very little known outside the German-speaking world until the late eighties, whereas the rest of the spectrum was known. Of course, the definition of ASDs are so vague his research subjects could easily have had completely different brains from Kanner.

      I guess I should have said that Autism is not necessarily associated with genius as my main point. I was trying to make a direct counterpoint, which I now see is overly extreme. However, based on my life experiences, people assumed that because I was good at one aspect of learning, that it was my fault that I struggled in other areas. So at least this stereotype needs to be broken. Too often, figures like Gates and Zuckerberg are the sole public face of Autism, and as far as I know, they never required special assistance in any area in life. I’m not saying the problem is that I wasn’t a multibillionaire or famous, the problem is that I couldn’t even function to a normal degree in public whereas they are reknown.

  2. Claudia Mazzucco says:

    “Einstein was slow in learning how to talk. Even after he had begun using words, sometime after the age of 2, he developed a quirk that prompted the family maid to dub him “der Depperte,” the dopey one, and others in his family to label him as “almost backwards.” His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness toward authority, which lead one school master to send him packing and another to amuse history by declaring that he would never amount to much. These traits made Albert Einstein the patron saint of distracted school kids everywhere. But they also helped to make him, or as he later surmised, the most creative scientific genius of modern times. ”

    “To use the language of psychologists, the young Einstein’s ability to systematize was far greater than his ability to empathize, which has led some to ask if he might have exhibited mild symptoms of some developmental disorder. However, it is important to note that, despite his aloof and occasionally rebellious manner, he did have the ability to make close friends and to empathize with colleagues and humanity in general.”

    ~ Walter Issacson in Einstein, His Life and Universe, 2007, Simon & Schuster, New York (pp. 8, 9, 12 & 13)

  3. Bill Peters says:

    While you have the right to your opinion I disagree with you. We need acceptance and accomadations not a cure, I’d like to know why a successful life to you means a life without autism, to me success to many people is differnt, this veiw that somehow autism acceptance is a bridge too far is alarming cause your saying that you can’t live a good life with autism yet many people I know have including myself.

    • Bill Peters says:

      Also life and opptunities for people with autism are improving all the time a cure will wipe away all these things cause why accomadations or understand or improve opptunities if we can just make you disappear via a pill or cure?