One of the reasons that people were so afraid of autism in the past was because in their ignorance they had a belief that everybody with autism would sink in to an almost coma like state, and be completely irresponsive to any stimuli. The worrying thing is not that beliefs like this existed – ignorance always breeds misconceptions – but that beliefs like this, and therefore ignorance, are still prevalent today.
This belief probably comes from the fact that some people with autism will find it hard to interact with those around them. Some people may simply sit and rock, and not really respond to anything that is said to them, and others may gaze at a wall and never speak. This may be a reality, but it is not something that affects everybody with autism. Knowledge and understanding of autism amongst average people on the street is much better now than it was even five years ago, but an unfortunately large number of people still have stereo-typical images in their head – for some of these people that image is the savant, and for others it is the typical seventies autism poster-boy; completely silent and unresponsive, not interacting with anything or anyone around him. The key thing that someone should remember when speaking about autism, is that autism is a spectrum – people don’t think of the colour spectrum as being comprised of only different shades of green. They know that it is vast, and the colour green, and all its variants only play a small part in it. The autism spectrum is exactly the same.
Also, even if somebody appears to be unresponsive and lost in their own world, that doesn’t mean that their brain isn’t working. There are numerous cases of people who are unable to communicate or interact verbally, picking up a pen or sitting at a laptop and writing incredibly eloquently, and powerfully about their experiences and interactions with the world, and the people around them – just because something can’t be seen doesn’t mean that it is not there. The fear that is generated in people by somebody who doesn’t talk is incredible. The idea of acceptance and understanding seems tested to its limit by somebody who can’t show how grateful they are for that understanding and acceptance. But the reality is, things have moved on since the 1970s, and just as it is no longer acceptable for the racist parlance of the day to be used in this day and age, neither is it acceptable for people to react with fear or revulsion at the idea of somebody finding it difficult to interact with what is around them. Neither is it ok to pity these people. They should be treated the same as everybody else, and accorded the same level of respect and dignity. Just because they might not be able to ask for this themselves does not make it any less important.
This stereo-type is fortunately becoming less common as people are gaining more of an understanding of what the word spectrum actually means. This is good, as it would be worrying if entire generations of people were leaving school without this basic information. But like all misconceptions about autism, it should be removed from the general consciousness completely.