According to autism advocacy community Autism Speaks, the colour of autism is blue. Because, if you subscribe to a narrow view of the world, blue is for boys – and so is autism. Even Hans Asperger, a prolific figure in the study of the condition, was dismissive of girls in his research.
Today, women and individuals assigned-female-at-birth are still underdiagnosed and experience residual invisibility due to this historical male-centrism. Similarly, autism is whitewashed to the extent where autistic people of colour are rarely acknowledged in its mainstream depictions, and face a whole other set of obstacles and biases in receiving support to their white counterparts.
Autism activism is notorious for decentring autistic people – which is as unfortunate as it is ironic, given that less than a third of Australians know how to support autistic people. Nonetheless, we are rarely included as participants in autism discourse.
Given our lack of due presence in conversations about autism, it’s unsurprising how armchair diagnoses are so casually thrown around by non-autistic proponents of society, and how narratives about autism are rarely driven by those with the condition. Two of the most persistent depictions of autism are that of the sexist, basement-dwelling incel, and the easy-to-digest Hollywood autism of an inspiring, kooky genius (bonus points if they also have an affinity for trains!). For such a wide spectrum condition, we see dismally little of its diversity.
Incels, or “involuntary celibates”, are an extremely misogynistic community that seek to punish women for not having sex with them, and that fantasise about twisted ways they believe female sexuality should be controlled as a resource for male consumption. They are regularly racist, paedophilic, and ableist, among a multitude of other abhorrent qualities. Nonetheless, they somehow cling to the belief that it is their social awkwardness or their looks that turn women off – overlooking the obvious red flag of their personalities or their insidious (and ironically named) Nice Guy Syndrome.
The autistic misogynist trope has recently loomed in the media regarding Eurydice Dixon’s heartbreaking rape and murder. The alleged perpetrator is reportedly autistic and “struggles in certain social environments”. The accused’s lawyer has included this in his arguments for name suppression however with that comes an underlying connection between the neurological condition and an individual’s propensity for committing atrocities. While the experience of social difficulty and alienation is unfortunately standard for autistic people, this case does not otherwise reflect our community in the slightest. In fact, we are significantly more likely to be targets of exploitation and crime than we are to be perpetrators.
Similarly, when a Toronto incel drove a van into pedestrians in April of this year, people gripped the edge of their diagnostic armchairs as reports speculated that the attacker may be autistic – which was later confirmed by the Ontario Autism Coalition. The attacker idolised the man responsible for the 2014 Isla Vista Massacre and principled himself on incel rhetoric. Statistically, it is no surprise that a proportion of incels are autistic, because a proportion of every society is autistic. But he’s not an incel because he’s autistic. Autism is not a precursor to violence or bigotry. Non-autistic men do bad things all the time. But being frequently misrepresented in mainstream media means that when it happens to be someone autistic who causes egregious harm, it suddenly feels like our responsibility prove we’re not all like this.
When it comes to maladaptive behaviours in men, autism is the go-to explanation
It is the social dysfunction exhibited by incels that has become tactlessly associated with autism. The narrative of an insecure, unlucky-in-love boy fits neatly into an archetype. In popular culture, social indicators of autism are represented more commonly—albeit stereotypically—than many of its other traits, including deficits and proficiencies in areas such as language skills, sensory-motor experiences, and perception, along with the occurrence of circumscribed interests and executive function atypicalities. As these complex components are disregarded in favour of a simplistic view of autism, it becomes unfortunately plausible for the general public to align the condition with incels – who, in many ways, represent the ultimate insecure, unlucky-in-love boy to a dangerous extreme.
When it comes to maladaptive behaviours in men, autism is the go-to explanation.
But why do we assume that all awful men must have mitigating factors to make them this way? Aren’t some people just bad, neurology aside? Why is autism seen as the likely catalyst of execrable male behaviour? Why doesn’t this generalisation come into play when dysfunction is exhibited by people other than (usually) young, white, heterosexual men?
By connoting male cruelty to autism, we displace the individual’s accountability for their own actions on to an already marginalised and misrepresented community. We saw this last year when Don Burke decided to plead autism when his many incidents of predatory harassment against women surfaced in the media.
While the narrative of the kooky autistic genius isn’t as brazenly upsetting as the association to incels, it is still a portrayal that is contrived and safe – a throwback to Rain Man, and to regarding autism and savant syndrome as one and the same. In all fairness, the hackneyed trope of an eccentric, white, male genius can be humanised in ways that have merit, or are arguably better than no representation at all. However, these depictions are still built on a stereotype, and it’s one that often fails to offer an autistic perspective, but rather a story from the outside looking in.
When Mark Zuckerberg was questioned at Congress about a Facebook data and privacy scandal in April, memes were subsequently created in derision of what were perceived as awkward communication skills. The backlash to these memes argued that mocking these traits is anti-autistic. I agree that we shouldn’t make fun of people’s mannerisms. I also understand how these particular idiosyncrasies are stereotyped as autistic traits, and that it struck a nerve to see them as a subject of ridicule.
The response to Mark Zuckerberg’s deposition illustrates how collectively it is presumed that a shy, white man with exceptional technology skills is probably autistic
However, a lot of these objectors assumed that Mark Zuckerberg must be autistic, when actually, this information isn’t publicly known. While it’s a well-meaning sentiment to oppose this sort of mockery, I found the situation paradoxical – by assuming Mark Zuckerberg is autistic, or implying that these traits are limited solely to autistic people, I felt that some of the backlash was inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes. Each person’s neurotype is individualised – and while some autistic people fit the expectation of being relatively unemotive in conversations, other autistic people are even more bubbly and affectionate than the average neurotypical person. And, just like anyone else, these types of traits are context dependent – after all, would that many people radiate jubilance when testifying to Congress?
The response to Mark Zuckerberg’s deposition illustrates how collectively it is presumed that a shy, white man with exceptional technology skills is probably autistic. By contrast, it is a painstaking process for many women and people of colour to be taken seriously in this regard – autistic black children in particular are often misdiagnosed with conduct disorder instead, indicating an insidious racial bias in the diagnosis of autism.
From my own experience, an eccentric, presumed autistic genius can even receive more support and acceptance than an actual autistic person. I once worked with a man who had a history of sexual harassment incidents in the workplace, but was a talented pianist. When female employees, including myself, expressed discomfort around him, we were told by the higher-ups to avoid being alone with him but try to be otherwise agreeable, as he was undeniably a little odd, but “might be on the spectrum”.
Needless to say, I was disgusted.
At the same workplace, I was singled out—and even endured formal disciplinary action—for lacking an innate awareness of arbitrary, unspoken rules, and asking too many questions to clarify these expectations. I was written off as being “difficult” and insubordinate. And yet, a threatening male manager was reserved understanding and accommodation of his disturbing behaviours on the mere suggestion of autism. For me, “understanding” at the best of times was being treated like a naughty child, and at its worst was nothing at all.
The next time you hear someone excuse terrible male behaviour with the line, “oh he’s probably on the spectrum”, just remember: so am I, so are approximately one per cent of Australian citizens, and we are not a hegemonic amalgam of sensationalised traits, nor are we more prone to bigotry than the rest of you.