5 Myths & Stereotypes About Autism That Hurt The Community, According To Autistic People

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Autism spectrum disorders are largely misunderstood — and that's because autistic people, and their firsthand experiences, are often left out of the conversation. The harmful myths and stereotypes about autism many people perpetuate greatly impact the autistic community in a negative way, so it's about time these stigmatizing tropes are put to rest.

According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), autism, or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), “is a neurological variation that occurs in about one% of the population.” Though used as an umbrella term to describe a wide range of disorders, ASAN reports that a majority of autistic people may experience difficulties when it comes to social interactions and communication, sensory differences, a need for routine and consistency, repetitive movements (aka stimming), or preoccupations with specific subjects.

While autistic people are more than able to advocate for their own community, the voices and experiences of family members are often privileged over those of autistic people themselves. As Alaina Leary wrote in an article for Rooted In Rights, “Autism awareness rarely goes beyond just basic education, and is often steeped in stereotypes, and misinformation about autistic people." A 2018 study found that the type of social stigma and discrimination this misinformation can cause autistic people psychological distress.

As Leary further explained in Rooted In Rights, autism acceptance begins with listening to autistic people when they talk about their experiences, and believing them. These five autistic people share the common myths that stigmatize the autistic community — and how people can move away from them.

1. Jason, 39

Jason says, "I think the most hurtful things said to me imply that I use autism as an excuse. It's a [health] condition if the human mind, the base of my perception."

2. Whitney, 25

"The phrase that bothers me is that autistics don't 'feel empathy.' We struggle with Theory of Mind, but many of us are deep feeling, and highly empathetic," says Whitney.

Whitney further explains that labels like high- functioning and low-functioning can be harmful to the autistic community. "They are too restrictive. They limit those who are nonverbal, and minimize the struggles of those who can mask [aka, hide their symptoms] well," Whitney says.

3. Wirtjo, 22

"'You don’t look autistic' is something I get all the time. This is really dehumanizing because it doesn’t recognize the tremendous amount of energy and focus it takes every second, of every day, to appear and act normal in order to avoid marginalization," says Wirtjo. "I’d much rather stim in public ... Instead, I leave social events the second burnout hits, because I know I no longer have the capacity in that moment to continue to pass as neurotypical."

4. Jessie, 30

Jessie says they find it extremely stigmatizing when people make a point to say they don't "look" or "seem" autistic. "It's like people have a stereotype in their minds about what certain disabilities look like, and I don't look autistic to them. Many of us appear 'normal' to protect ourselves when we're around people we don't know well. [...] I've suffered much abuse from people who didn't tolerate my autistic behavior," they say.

"As soon as I get home, all my non-socially-acceptable autistic behavior comes gushing out. It's extremely different than how other people act, but it's beautiful."

5. Brooke*, 26

"The most harmful stereotype about autism is that it somehow makes me incompetent, or incapable," says Brooke. "I basically don't tell anyone about my diagnosis, because I don't want them to treat me differently."

Autism acceptance goes beyond just actively listening to autistic people — it's about combatting stereotypes people may (knowingly or unknowingly) perpetuate in their own lives about ASD. Being autistic presents its own unique set of challenges and strengths for each individual, but stigma is by far one of the largest hurdles that people in the autistic community encounter. It's long overdue that our society overcomes this stigma altogether.

*Name has been changed.