I am sometimes overwhelmed by the level of misunderstanding about autism prevalent not just in the general population, but with doctors and even parents of autistic children. So I thought I would provide answers to five misconceptions people have about people on the autism spectrum.
1. Yes, we do like to be around people.
The fact that we have social anxiety does not mean we don’t like to be around people, or that we won’t do things that involve groups of people. When I told my Aunt Cindy I had Asperger’s and that I suspected her father also had Asperger’s, she objected that he went to church and was a member of the Audubon Society (coincidentally, I recently read somewhere that people with autism are particularly good at bird spotting). The fact that he was involved in a social group or two does not prove he did not have Asperger’s. The fact that on the very day I was born, he discovered the nesting site of the upland sandpiper in South Bend, IN (when most grandparents would have been at the hospital where their daughter was giving birth to their grandson), suggests he probably did have Asperger’s. My maternal grandfather was not particularly social, and the fact that he was a member of a club and a church doesn’t mean he was particularly social. But neither does the fact that he likely had Asperger’s mean he wasn’t social, either. And the same is true of me. I was not only a member of several clubs in high school and college—I was elected president of the Association of Undergraduate Geneticists (AUG) at WKU. But I am definitely on the autism spectrum.
- If we’re verbal, we will talk—and even give speeches
When my wife and I gave a talk on our experience with autism, a man in the audience was curious how I could stand in front of a large group and talk. Well, standing in front of a large group and talking about something about which I am very interested is in fact pretty easy for me. In fact, you may not be able to get me to shut up. I am not dealing with people as people, but as an audience; I am not interacting personally, but rather discussing something I want to discuss. There is no small talk involved; there are few if any emotions involved. But when I go with my wife to our bimonthly support group at The Warren Center, I am extremely anxious. I have to chit-chat with people, I am faced with some pretty raw emotions at times from people having a hard time with what they and their children are going through, etc. But if someone asks me a question and I am in the position to talk about what I know about autism, my anxiety tends to dissipate. I can focus on the topic, and thus I am in a more comfortable place.
- We do like to be social, and we do want to be invited places
I have also learned to force myself to do social things even when I don’t want to do them. Again, it’s not that we don’t want to ever do anything social; rather, it is that we don’t want to do social things all that often. Sometimes I’m in the mood to hang out with a bunch of friends. Often, I’m not. But I learned that I had to agree to hang out when I really didn’t want to so I would be invited to hang out when I did really want to. That makes me appear to be more social than I really am; in other words, I act more social than I want to act. And I do so to get invited places when I want to go, not because I feel any social pressure. You cannot use social pressure on me to get me to do anything; that is the very last thing that will work on me.
- We can (sometimes) look people in the eye
Looking people in the eye is a complicated issue for people on the spectrum. Neurotypical people naturally look people in the eye, because their eyes track the eyes of other people the vast majority of the time. Autistic people are more decentralized in the way their eyes scan, meaning we look at everything equally. What people need to understand is that there is a range involved among autistics, meaning there are those who are severely autistic who can never look someone in the eye and there are people with Asperger’s who have trained themselves to be more attentive about looking people in the eye. While I have learned over the years to look people in the eye when I talk to them, it is not my preference. But I also understand it makes people uncomfortable if I don’t. And that can create problems for me. I used to look at people’s mouths, and I still often do. But I had several people complain about that and demand I look them in the eye. But to do so means I am consciously thinking about the fact that I need to look that person in the eyes. Often, when I am in a meeting, I will look at my notepad and generally avoid looking at anyone. But if I speak or am addressed, I will make the mental effort to look at the person. But it is a mental effort to do so. And it means you don’t have my full attention.
- We are creative and imaginative
I have had people express surprise that I am a poet. I’m not sure why people don’t think someone with autism can be a poet. Craig Nicholls, the singer/songwriter of The Vines, and Courtney Love both have Asperger’s, and they write songs. So yes, it is possible to have autism and to be a poet. Perhaps it is because people with autism tend to be literal in their understanding of language; but in my case, that tendency to be literal with language has resulted in an interest in metaphors and other figures of speech. I often find what neurotypicals do to be of interest for their very oddity to me. And that strangeness of language use is particularly useful for being a poet. So despite what some autism experts have claimed, autistics can be extremely creative, very inventive and imaginative. I suspect a great many artists and inventors, and scientists especially, were and are on the spectrum.