It is not particularly common to see autistic people pictured in film or television, but for the most part, when they are they are shown as autistic savants; people who struggle with nearly everything in their life, but have one incredible talent. They are often shown as being exceptionally gifted in areas such as maths, music, or art. But how true is this of the majority of autistic people?
The short and simple answer is, not very. It is true that savants are a real phenomenon. There are some people who can play any musical instrument without having had any lessons, or paint ridiculously detailed images simply from memory. But by and large, most people with autism are simply average. It is true that autistic people can sometimes be fairly intelligent, and may have good skills when it comes to things such as logical thinking, or problem solving. But generally they’re not any more inclined to be supremely gifted than any other section of society. In fact, often people with autism will struggle a lot more, and while autism in itself is not a negative thing, most autistic people don’t have the bonus of having a savant skill.
Despite the fact that it might seem like a positive stereo-type, the image of all autistic people as savants is not beneficial at all. It puts a layer of pressure on to autistic people, as they are often expected to be good at things simply because they are autistic – and truly there is no such thing as a positive stereo-type. In a way it is understandable that so many neuro-typical people hold this belief, due to the amount the image of the autistic savant has been depicted in the media. It would be much better if there were more images of people who are simply autistic being portrayed. The savant image – despite the fact that it is based on an occasional reality – has almost become a cliché. And while it is true that a large number of neuro-typical people know that savants only make up a small number of the autistic population, there is still an unfortunate amount of people who will expect any autistic person they meet to have some immense measure of talent. While this may appear to be flattering, it is actually unhelpful. Without meaning to sound disrespectful, a lot of autistic people struggle simply to get by day to day, without also believing that they have to match the achievements of other autistic people.
Having said all of this there are still savants out there, all of whom should not be discouraged by this stereo-type. The negativity of it comes from neuro-typical people labelling all autistic people in the same way, and not from the actual savants themselves. Savants are often misunderstood, and looked upon almost as freaks of nature rather than as normal people who have some challenges, and some skills. In reality they are autistic just as everybody else on the spectrum is autistic, and it is unfair on them to treat them as if they are the personification of autism, by which all other autistics should be measured – as if their challenges are somehow lessened by the fact that they are so skilful in certain areas.
Part 1 about the myth that those with autism lack empathy can be read here.
Part 2 about the myth that those people with autism are usually anti-social can be read here.