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5 Autism Stereotypes I Fit, and 5 I Don't

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I wanted to write an article for April, for Autism Awareness month. Of course, I’m a bit late to the party, but I spent awhile deciding what to write about. Finally I settled on it: autism stereotypes. There are a lot of autism stereotypes out there, some good and some bad. But they can never apply to everyone. So I decided to break down 10 autism stereotypes I’ve come across — five I do fit, and five I don’t — to help prove this point.

I don’t like math. And I’m not good at it. There seems to be a stereotype that anyone with autism has to be a whiz at math. I’ve had people, when told about my autism, say things like “Well, at least you’re really good at math!” Nope. Math has always been my worst subject. For some reason, as soon as I see numbers, my brain wants to shut down. I took a logic class in college that replaced numbers with letters, and it made so much more sense to me. Still, this stereotype is so strong, I’ve had people who suddenly seem to doubt my diagnosis because I’m not a math genius. It’s important to remember that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses — and yes, of course this applies to those with autism as well.

I do love animals. I’ve always been able to relate to animals better than to people, ever since I was a kid. There’s something about the way animals accept you and don’t judge that is comforting. Their body language is simple and easy to understand for me. Frankly, I understood cat body language long before I understood human. They rarely try to hide what they’re feeling and they’re very predictable. Perhaps because of all this, I find it easier to feel empathy towards animals than to people.

I don’t get confused by sarcasm. I have a t-shirt that says “I Speak Fluent Sarcasm.” Because I am a very sarcastic person. While it is common for people with autism to misunderstand and be confused by sarcasm, that’s not always the case. I’m a writer, I get sarcasm, I get irony, I get figurative language. I’ve always liked learning about words and how to put them together. I think this may actually stem from my autism — I had such difficulty expressing myself that I was eager to learn as many words as I could to express myself as best I could. I now have a tendency to use occasionally throw bigger, fancier words into conversation — not to show off, but to make the exact point I’m trying to. Fortunately, this trait really helps me as a writer.

I do have trouble with body language. I am getting better at this, but I do sometimes struggle. One big example I remember is when I was having an argument with an acting teacher of mine. He called my dad afterwards to tell him that, not only was I disrespectful, but I also walked away in the middle of the argument. When my dad confronted me, I explained I thought he was done talking. He had leaned back in his chair and put his head down, and I read that as “I can’t deal with this right now,” so I thought I was supposed to leave quietly. Apparently, that wasn’t what he meant.

Looking back, I can only assume he was trying to think of his next point, but at the time I was 100 percent convinced that he wanted me to leave, and that it would be the best thing for me to do.

I don’t hate parties. I actually like parties. When I was a kid I loved when we’d have parties at our house. My favorites were the Halloween parties we’d have, where we’d invite everyone in my grade. We’d have a haunted house room, a fortune teller room, a scavenger hunt, a piñata, costume contests… they were always the best. And I still like parties, though I may not be the biggest social butterfly. I enjoy chatting with small groups of people, participating in activities, and then leaving when I’m tired. I often need a day to “recover” from the intense socialization, but it’s usually worth it.

I do need time to myself. I need more time to myself than the average person might. That’s how I recharge. Again, it’s not that I don’t like being social. But it’s like a person who loves to run marathons (I have to imagine this, since I personally hate running). They may love running them, but they have to recharge in between or they won’t have the energy or capacity to run. It’s the same for me and socializing. I need time, by myself, doing something like playing video games or watching TV, to restore my energy.

I don’t hate talking. I tend to be pretty chatty, actually. Especially in classes — I’m the one who always has their hand up. I have an opinion on everything and always want to share. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I wasn’t allowed to comment on other kids’ presentations because I had a tendency to correct them. It wasn’t about showing off or embarrassing them, but the idea that someone would leave the room with inaccurate information bothered me! Nowadays, I tend to strike up conversations when I’m bored.

I do have specific interests (that I love to talk about!). I’m especially chatty when you get me talking about my interests. If it’s about a video game I play, a musical I’ve seen, an animal I love, or a television show I watch, I’ll talk your ear off. Paired with my difficulty in understanding body language, I may ask you if you’re bored, since I have a hard time telling. And don’t be afraid to be honest. It won’t hurt my feelings, and I’ll just end up frustrated that I upset you.

I don’t lack empathy. Going off that last point, while I sometimes struggle to express it, I do have empathy. I care about what other people are feeling and am, deep down, a people pleaser. I have a bad habit of putting other people’s need ahead of my own, and I hate conflict. It’s ironic that I was often thought to be a troublemaker as a kid. In reality, the “trouble” I caused was always because of misunderstandings — not because I actually wanted to upset anyone! I can actually be a rather meek person and will usually let someone else “win” an argument just to end it. Of course, if it’s something I’m passionate enough about, that can be a different story.

I do have meltdowns. If I’m ever rude or mean, it’ll be for one of two reasons — either you’ve caught me in a really bad mood (we’ve all been there), or I’m having a meltdown. When I have a meltdown, generally caused by stress and/or sensory overload, I lose quite a bit of control over my body. I may lash out physically or verbally, all while feeling terrible about it. My brain is telling me to stop, but my body doesn’t seem to listen. I’ve gotten better at preventing and controlling my meltdowns over the years, but I still slip up from time to time.

So, that’s my list. I enjoyed writing it, and it really made me think about different conditions, and how multiple people with the same diagnosis can still be so different. I encourage anyone who has a diagnosis of any sort to stop and think about making your own list. You don’t need to share it, but it can be an enlightening experience.

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Thinkstock image by jacoblund

Originally published: April 28, 2017
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