Four autism stereotypes that teachers should try to dispel

Increased visibility of autism through characters in film and television is a positive thing, but we must be cautious about believing the stereotypes, says one teacher

Gordon Cairns

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Working with students who have autistic spectrum disorders, you quickly learn to abandon any preconceived ideas about what autistic people are like. Their personalities are just as diverse as any group of young people you might encounter.

Yet, when people with autism are represented in TV and film, they are all too often reduced to two-dimensional stereotypes. And while it is positive that characters with autism are becoming more visible — they now seem as ubiquitous as TV programmes about renovating houses — there is a danger that we will fall into the trap of believing the stereotypes.

So, here are four of the most common autism stereotypes that teachers should strive to dispel.

1. People with autism are geniuses

This is one of the longest-running stereotypes, popularised in part by the 1988 movie Rain Man, where Dustin Hoffman plays a man with autism, who has the ability to instantly count hundreds of objects.

Almost three decades since the release of this film, teachers will still occasionally ask me what it’s like to work with highly-gifted children.

The truth is that, while many people who are geniuses have autism, the reverse does not hold true, and the range of intellectual ability is as wide as in the neurotypical community.

2. People with autism have prodigious memories

The British television series The A Word, which was broadcast last year and received positive reviews, helped to spread this misconception. In it, a five-year-old boy who receives a diagnosis of autism is able to remember the lyrics, composers and dates of release of his father's favourite tunes.

However, I also know someone with autism who would tell people with absolute conviction what the number one song was on the day they were born. The funny thing is that he was just making it up for a laugh, but his audience were convinced by his sincerity and by the media stereotype.

3. That autistic people have no sense of humour

Something else that programme makers often miss is how intentionally funny people with an ASD can be. On TV, they are usually the straight-faced outsider, such as Saga Noren from The Bridge. Yet the reality of working with children with autism is having a class full of kids cracking jokes, making funny comments, smiling and laughing.

4. Having autism means ticking every box

Then, there are the programmes that present characters who display every autistic trait they can think of: lack of empathy, obsessive behaviour, no self-awareness and extreme competitiveness to name but a few. You can see an example of this in the character of Dr Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory.

Of course, TV shows like this are just for entertainment and would never be used as a training tool to help understand pupils with Asperger’s syndrome, right? Unfortunately not, as a support worker I know in Scotland was recently told to study Sheldon to better understand autism.

The reality is that while someone with an ASD may have a few behaviours associated with the condition, pupils with an ASD don't always act “autistically”. In fact, for a large part of the day, their behaviour could be described as “normal” teenage behaviour – if such a thing exists.

I hope that the media will begin to show this “normal” side of autism more often, too. Sesame Street has recently introduced an autistic character to help young children identify with classmates with autism while showing them the differences and things they have in common. This could be a first step in redressing the balance.

Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland

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Gordon Cairns

Gordon Cairns is a forest school and English teacher who works in Scotland

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