Contrasting Stereotypes of Autism in Recent Media

Image (c) Don Arnold/Getty Images

I’ve wanted to write about Sia’s new film, Music, for some time. I’d even planned the title: The Trouble with Sia’s “Music”. Love a bit of wordplay, me. The thing is, I was terrified of putting pen to paper in fear of just brain dumping all the things that are wrong with the film and its production, and I wanted to do more than just giving the film a good bashing. I wanted to write something that would be insightful.

Music is Sia’s first foray into film production, and centres around a former addict becoming the sole guardian for her autistic half-sister. The film has received a lot of criticism, even back when the trailer was released ( this is a great example from Time Magazine). The criticism was wide ranging, covering topics such as casting a neurotypical actor (who Sia had already worked with more than once) to play an autistic character, having a scene depicting forcible restraint, and consulting with an autism charity that promotes “cures” proven to cause PTSD. Plus, well, reviews show that the film just isn’t that good (see this 1 star review from the Guardian).

And so, surprisingly, I was grateful to Sir Simon Baron Cohen. You probably haven’t heard of him but I know what you’re thinking, and yes, he is the lesser known cousin of Sacha. He is a professor specialising in autism who has recently been promoting his new book called “The Pattern Seekers”.

What does this unlikely duo have in common? Well, both have been in the media recently, perpetuating stereotypes of autism. The stereotypes they are reinforcing are polar opposites, but both are equally damaging.

Sia was nominated for a Golden Globe last weekend for the film she reckons is a “love letter” to the autistic community. (Here is another article from the Independent outlining why that isn’t the case.) Focussing just on the stereotyping issue, those of you who read my last blog will know that a lot of “stereotypically autistic” people have other diagnoses too. And yet here is another portrayal of an autistic character who is non-verbal, holds themselves awkwardly, and is not given a voice (and by the way, none of those things appear in the strict diagnostic criteria).

Why is this damaging for autistic people?

Because a lot of autistic people are muddling through life, holding down a job, a marriage, raising kids. You might not even know they are autistic. You certainly wouldn’t be able to tell by the way they walk. Sia had an opportunity to give the autistic community a voice, and that community feels she let them down.

At the other end of the scale is Sir Simon. Oh, Sir Simon. He’s one of the leading academics specialising in autism and yet… he also misses the mark. His heart is in the right place, but Baron Cohen has recently released a book suggesting that “Autistic people have really contributed to human progress”; that “the genes for autism drove the evolution of human invention” (article here)… No pressure, then!

So which is it? Are autistic people non-verbal, ear defender-wearers who have to use computers to communicate? Or are they geniuses who are single handedly responsible for human progression?

The answer is neither… and both.

There are two points here. The first is that “when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person” – there is no blue print. And secondly, things like being non-verbal or having a stroke of genius can be transient or subjective. We’ve all been speechless before. Some autistic people have a similar sensation when they are overwhelmed and physically can’t get words out. But they can still hold a conversation 99% of the time. Equally, a different way of thinking might mean an autistic person sheds light on a problem your team is trying to solve. Does it make them a genius? Probably not.

So I want to appeal to you. Please, read about autism. Watch Hannah Gadsby’s “Douglas” on Netflix. Listen to the BBC’s “1800 Seconds on Autism” podcast. But whichever medium you are consuming, think about what you are reading or hearing and critique it. What is the author trying to achieve? Because I can tell you with certainty that no-one is going to win a Golden Globe or earn a knighthood by suggesting that autistic people are just like you and me.

What does Neurodiversity Look Like?

I’m sorry – I’m teasing you with the title of this one, and you’re getting three different answers to this question!

And for that reason, let’s jump straight in:

Answer 1

You can’t tell whether someone is neurodivergent just by looking at them

Never a good idea to tell someone they “don’t look autistic” or that they “cover it well”. You might get very short shrift. These preconceptions are based on an outdated stereotype.

Did you know?

A lot of stereotypes of autistic people are based on individuals who are autistic but also have other diagnoses. For example, Kim Peek – who inspired Raymond Babbitt in Rainman – wasn’t only autistic. He had learning difficulties and possibly also a condition called FG Syndrome. Yet the film suggests that all of Babbitt’s traits are down to autism. Why let the truth ruin a good story, eh?

Answer 2

One person’s neurodivergent traits might not be the same as another’s

If you’ve met one neurodivergent person, you’ve met one neurodivergent person. Our challenges, strengths, coping mechanisms, sensory sensitivities all vary from person to person, even when we share a diagnosis. This means that just because one neurodivergent friend didn’t need a particular accommodation, that doesn’t mean that other neurodivergent friends won’t. So take the time to understand what makes your friends and family tick.

Answer 3

Some real world examples of what Neurodiversity “looks” like

When reading this list please ask yourself: If I had the opportunity to talk to this person, would it matter to me that I might need to accommodate their foibles? Because giving your neurodivergent friends time, space and understanding can be a huge help in social situations.

Richard Branson

Virgin Tycoon Richard Branson knew he was dyslexic from school age, saying “I was seen as the dumbest person in school”. You can read more from Richard Branson here: Dyslexia helped me to become successful

Simone Biles

Multi Olympic gold medal winner Simone Biles had to speak publicly about her ADHD when hackers revealed that she takes a commonly prescribed ADHD medication. See a 3 minute discussion of the topic on Good Morning America here.

Cara Delevigne

Model, actress and author Cara spoke candidly about her dyspraxia in this interview with Vogue. She has since written a book to help teenagers navigate their mental health.

David Beckham

Footballer and Spice-husband Beckham has been talking openly about both anxiety and OCD for over 10 years.

Billie Eilish

In 2020 singer-songwriter Billie Eilish joined the likes of Shirley Bassey, Adele and Paul McCartney in recording the theme tune for the latest James Bond film. You can hear her talking about Tourette’s with Ellen Degeneres here (2 minute video). She touches on two very important topics: not being defined by our neurotype, and masking (which we’ll talk about in a later blog).

Anthony Hopkins

In this 2017 interview Oscar winner Sir Anthony Hopkins talked about his autism diagnosis (referred to here as “Aspergers”) and said, “I don’t go to parties, I don’t have many friends… But I do like people.” The paradox of autism in a nutshell!

Sensory Processing in Neurodiversity

Have you ever wondered, well I have,

About how when I say, say red, for example,

There’s no way of knowing if red

Means the same thing in your head

As red means in my head when someone says red.”

Lyrics of Quiet by Tim Minchin, from Matilda the Musical

This is an interesting one, isn’t it? I remember having conversations about this when I was about 9 or 10: how do we know that we all perceive the world in the same way?

Because we already know that we don’t, don’t we?

We all understand that some people perceive the world differently. Colour vision deficiency (“colour blindness”) is widely understood. Pregnant women can have an increased sensitivity to smell. As we age, we lose the ability to hear very high and very low sound frequencies. And men and women often experience the same ambient temperature slightly differently.

Similarly, some neurodivergent people experience sensory inputs differently to the majority, too. 

Sensory differences are required as part of the criteria for an autism diagnosis. And although not required for an ADD/ADHD diagnosis, they are commonly seen as part of that profile too. The same is true of dyslexia, Tourette Syndrome and OCD among others.

What is it like to experience the world in this way?

Well, there are a range of ways we can experience sensory inputs. While some people might be hypersensitive, others might be hyposensitive. This means that while one person might be reaching for their jumper when the temperature’s 100 degrees, someone else might be out in the snow in shorts and t-shirt. And while for some the biggest differences might be in auditory or visual perception, others might find touch or taste their biggest challenge.

I guess everyone experiences the world differently if there’s that much variation?

Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a society that normalised different sensory experiences. But in reality, that doesn’t happen. Sensory differences might be the reason your friend declines an invitation for a drink after work, especially if they know you’re going to a noisy bar. It might be the reason they wear the same jumper day in, day out (the one that doesn’t have scratchy tags, perhaps). It might be the reason they eat the same lunch every day; not because they particularly like the texture or taste of that specific BLT, but because the sandwich bar is the closest shop to the office and the BLT is stocked next to the till, so choosing that each day limits exposure to the echoing chatter of other customers, the clink of tea spoons on saucers, the fluorescent lighting…

Someone who is hypersensitive might describe this as everything coming in at 100% volume. You know when you take a photo in portrait mode and it blurs out the background so that just the subject is in focus? Some brains don’t do that. All the sliders on the mixing desk are up to max. This is what can give some people a brilliant eye for detail or memory for specifics, but in some circumstances that same person might not be able to “see the wood for the trees”.

What does this mean for neurodivergent people?

It’s really important to acknowledge that different people have different sensory experiences, because the challenges these bring and the solutions they require might not seem particularly logical to a neurotypical person.

Ultimately, we want to make sure we are working on as level a playing field as possible, and maybe that means letting your friend sit in the seat with their back to the busy bar. Maybe it means understanding that they’ve put their headphones in on the bus to avoid overwhelm. Or perhaps avoiding incidents like the one my ex-colleagues and I still refer to, 10 years on, as “sardine-gate”. I’ll leave that one to your imagination, but suffice to say it’s still vivid memory for many of us!!

Choice Paralysis

Choose tea. Simple!

Only joking. But they do say a picture paints a thousand words, and this one captures the struggle. You see, choice paralysis (also known as “analysis paralysis”, but that’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?) is when we have so many options that we struggle to choose any option at all. Or go in for a coffee and come out with a tea.

Choice paralysis is one of the gifts bestowed upon us by executive dysfunction, which also helps us to lose our keys, underestimate how long activities take, miss deadlines, turn up late, have difficulty switching tasks and complete steps of a task in the wrong order…

The thing is, choice paralysis is actually the outcome of making decisions consciously, and for neurodivergent people this can happen a whole lot more than for neurotypical people. And not by choice, it’s like having to mentally tick one of those annoying little “opt in” boxes with every move we make. This is why a lot of autistic people depend on routine – it reduces the amount of brain power needed to get through the day.

What is choice paralysis like in practice?

If we think about commuting to the office, for example, while you might have a preferred spot on the platform (the one that puts you closes to the exit at the station you’re going to, perhaps?), that might be the most thought you put into your journey. When the train pulls in, you plonk yourself in any seat that happens to be empty, and read/sleep/check emails until you get to your stop….

Have a look at this diagram from Camilla Pang’s Royal Society prize-winning “Explaining Humans”. It gives a flavour of what it is like to have to consciously make micro-decisions, which is what some neurodivergent people experience:

The diagram shows that there are a multitude of considerations, from avoiding being near someone with strong perfume, to standing your ground but remembering not to push anyone.

The thing is, this isn’t a one off. Somebody making these decisions has to do this every time they get on a train. Then the same process occurs when choosing what to have for lunch. When drafting an email. Taking a shower. Cooking dinner…

So, what does this mean for neurodivergent people?

Well, firstly your neurodivergent friends and family are working hard, all the time, to get from one end of the day to the other. Before we layer their job, or their childcare responsibilities, or housework, etc. over the top. Secondly, you can really help them by communicating clearly and concisely. This helps to reduce mental energy being wasted on things like misunderstandings about where and when to meet, or who was meant to book the table.

And lastly, everyone loves a cup of tea…!

Want to know more about choice paralysis?

There’s a great YouTube video from “Aspergers from the Inside” describing choice paralysis here.

And this article talks about decision-making taking mental energy

ADHD Awareness

October is ADHD Awareness month, so – spoiler – this month’s blog is about adult ADHD.

One of the things autism and ADHD have in common are the stereotypes that are called to mind when we think about them, and how these contrast with the reality. The stereotype of someone with autism is usually along the lines of a male child who struggles to hold a conversation, lines up cars and can do complex maths, and that stereotype is quite rightly being blown out of the water. The similar ADHD stereotype of a hyperactive, inattentive child is lagging somewhat behind.

But the truth is that both or these stereotypes are just that – boys (and girls) with autism or ADHD grow up to be adults with autism or ADHD: these are neurotypes, not behaviours.

So, what does ADHD look like in adults?

How can we support our ADHD friends and family?

As always, this really depends on the individual and their specific needs, but some very simple adjustments can make a whole lot of difference. Agreeing a 15 minute window to meet up rather than a specific time, for example. Or keeping sensory distractions to a minimum (hands up who can’t hear anything else when they’re watching TV).

Most important, though, is understanding that Neurodiversity is about normal brain differences. Neurodivergent people can’t change their brain processes, and neither should they have to. That hyperactive, inattentive child might just grow up to harness their hyperfocus and become a brilliant investment banker, record-breaking athlete or award-winning comedian.

Want to know more about ADHD?

Check out Additide Magazine’s 31 Myths in 31 Days

The Double Empathy Problem

Have you ever told a joke that just didn’t land? You know, the ones where you’re expecting your audience to belly laugh, and they meet you with an awkward silence…..? Imagine having that happen most days; so often that you stop telling jokes anymore because you can’t gauge which ones will land and which ones won’t.

Some people who are “neurodivergent” (this is the opposite of “neurotypical” and encompasses things like dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and so on) spend a great deal of their lives having this happen to them. But not just when they tell jokes. Sometimes when they are having a conversation, their intonation results in a similar response. Sometimes the words they choose to get their point across. Sometimes their volume.

The thing is, recent research has shown that this isn’t a one-way issue (though neurodivergent people could probably have told you that already!). There’s a concept in Autism Research called the “Double Empathy Problem” and this, simply put, is the idea that when two people with different experiences of the world interact, they will struggle to empathise with each other: You don’t understand why I’m blunt? I don’t understand why you beat around the bush.

What has this got to do with neurotypical people?

Well, this recent research has looked at the way neurodivergent (specifically autistic) and neurotypical people communicate with each other. What it has found, is that whether you are talking about information transfer, facial expressions or rapport, groups made up of solely autistic people score as highly in each of these areas as solely neurotypical groups. The scores only drop when you bring the two neurotypes together. This is important because it shows that autistic people are not “deficient” in these skills, they just do it in a way neurotypical people don’t understand.

This suggests we should be mindful that not all our brains work the same way, we don’t all communicate the same way, and we should all play our part in making communication clear and transparent.

And you never know, if you understand your friends a little better, and if they understand you a little better, they might just laugh a little louder at your jokes!

Where can I find more information?

Check out this YouTube video (the explanation of the study starts about 6 minutes in, but the intro is great too), or this tongue-in-cheek titled interview: The Problem with Autistic Communication is Non-Autistic People