When making a discovery, humans have a need to put a name on it. This makes things easier as it generalizes the discovery, and everyone would be able to label everything the same way. If you mention the word ‘baby’, everyone will instantly think of a small child between the ages of 0 to 1 year old, where they have yet to learn how to walk or talk. Or if you mention ‘selective mutism’, many would be able to describe it as a child not being able to communicate effectively in specific social settings.
But, what about Autism Spectrum Disorder? How would we define ASD?
Definition by DSM-5
Firstly, one would refer to academic journals with official diagnoses and definitions. According to the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), individuals with ASD are usually characterized by the following criteria. One of which is having impairments in social development, both verbal and non-verbal communication, which includes examples like lack of eye contact and the ability to initiate conversations, and lack of interest in peers. In addition, they also exhibit stereotyped, repetitive behaviours, which are also known as stimming or self-stimulatory behaviours.
Definition by society and multimedia
Due to the nature of some stimming behaviours, they are usually easily noticed and observed, which leads to the society thinking that those behaviours define ASD. Such noticeable behaviours include flapping and/or clapping of hands, spontaneous and repetitive verbalisations (singing songs or re-enacting characters from multimedia – television shows, advertisement jingles, cartoons), as well as wanting to arrange objects in order. As these behaviours are rather obvious, society has stereotyped them as “autistic”. Moreover, apart from stimming behaviours, there are many who believe the misconception of individuals with ASD having savant capabilities (being highly skilled in academics, arts, memory etc) when it is not always the case (Draaisma, 2009).
These stereotypes have been further exaggerated by several forms of media, such as television series and films where individuals with ASD are always portrayed to exhibit those behaviours. Even though some of these shows may have well intentions to spread awareness about individuals with ASD, the portrayal of the characters may be taken too literally at times. The most recent controversy raised about the inaccurate portrayal of individuals with ASD is about the film “Music” directed by the musical artist, Sia. As mentioned in an e-news article, there were comments made by both neurotypical individuals and individuals with ASD that stated that the performance was found to be offensive and misguided (Spencer, 2021). Thus, there is a rising need for accurate and diverse representation of individuals with ASD in multimedia.
Effects of stereotypes
While there may be similarities observed in stimming behaviours across various individuals with ASD, no two persons are the same. ASD is a spectrum disorder, which means the types of behaviours and severity levels of deficits in their development differ across every individual with ASD. These stereotypes have also been shown to cause harm since they usually have negative connotations. They can lead to people being fearful and wanting to distance themselves or exclude individuals with ASD, whether in specific social settings or in the general public (Wood & Freeth, 2016). One of the reasons could be due to the lack of understanding in the reason some individuals with ASD may exhibit certain stimming behaviours, especially obvious physical stims that may include big movements with parts of their body. Furthermore, due to being labelled as different and the presence of social deficits, there have been several cases of individuals with ASD who have been ostracised and bullied by others, especially in a school setting. Exposure to such environments and people can contribute to the development of long-term issues, such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicidal ideation (Hebron & Humphrey, 2014; Lung et al., 2019; White & Roberson-Nay, 2009).
What can I do to help reduce the stigma?
In this day and age, we have easy access to information and official documentations of individuals with ASD as shared by such individuals themselves as well as professionals who have worked and researched ASD for decades. On social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, we can also find advocates and caregivers who spread awareness and educate the general public on what ASD really is. As quoted by Dr Stephen Shore, “If you meet a person with autism, you meet ONE person with autism.” This means that we need to be open-minded and not have any form of expectations when meeting individuals with ASD since everyone is different. Furthermore, there are also various organisations that are open for people to volunteer in supporting individuals with ASD, whether directly or indirectly helping them. Not only will people be able to learn more about ASD, but they will also be able to interact with such individuals and have a better understanding of how they view the world and live their life.
Humans have always been afraid of things that are unfamiliar and “out of the norm” – this often leads to retaliating against who are “different”. However, if more people were to challenge these norms, there would be less fear and more acceptance and tolerance. Moreover, if individuals with ASD were given more opportunities to express themselves in ways which no one would judge them for, they would be a more inclusive and welcoming place for everyone to live in.
Written by Alisha.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Pub.
Draaisma D. (2009). Stereotypes of autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1522), 1475-1480. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0324
Hebron, J., & Humphrey, N. (2014). Exposure to bullying among students with autism spectrum conditions: A multi-informant analysis of risk and protective factors. Autism, 18(6), 618-630. doi: 10.1177/1362361313495965
Lung, F. W., Shu, B. C., Chiang, T. L., & Lin, S. J. (2019). Prevalence of bullying and perceived happiness in adolescents with learning disability, intellectual disability, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder: In the Taiwan birth cohort pilot study. Medicine, 98(6). doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000014483
Spencer, S. (2021, February 15). The backlash Against SIA'S Autism movie 'MUSIC' EXPLAINED. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.newsweek.com/music-sia-movie-autism-controversy-maddie-ziegler-1569289
White, S. W., & Roberson-Nay, R. (2009). Anxiety, social deficits, and loneliness in youth with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(7), 1006-1013. doi: 10.1007/s10803-009-0713-8
Wood, C., & Freeth, M. (2016). Students’ stereotypes of autism. Journal of Educational Issues, 2(2), 131-140. doi: 10.5296/jei.v2i2.9975