Autism in the Media

Trigger Warning: Autism Speaks, discussion of Ableism and ableist manifestations in the media

We’ve been doing a lot of hiring the past month in preparation for the summer, and it’s been nice getting to know the new workers. I generally like them, and they seem to generally like me, some in spite of, others because of, my idiosyncrasies.

Probably what requires the most getting used to is me asking if someone is serious or sarcastic to make sure I’m following the conversation correctly. One particular incident, a few of the new hires were standing next to my cashier station with some of the other old cashiers, making jokes. I was pretty lost. And so I asked some questions to clarify the situation and make sure I was following. I guess some of the new hires seemed confused, or to find it funny, because my supervisor, a great Autistic ally who was standing nearby, injected, “Erika Lynn has difficulty understanding certain jokes.”

“Oh, are you like Sheldon,” one of the new hires asked me. In case you don’t get the reference, she’s referring to Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, the most popular show in America–literally.

“Yes, actually, I am. We’re both Autistic,” I said.

“I didn’t know Sheldon was Autistic!”

According to a producer of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon is not Autistic, but rather based off the stereotypical computer programmer or hard scientist…who generally share nearly all the same traits of with one of the stereotypical images of Autistics. Jim Parsons, the actor who plays Sheldon, has said he believes is character has highly Autistic qualities, and hinted that, if it weren’t for the show’s producers telling him otherwise, he would outright identify Sheldon as Autistic. Beyond that, many Autistics believe him to be Autistic, and on YouTube, there are countless videos that seek to explain Autism using Sheldon Cooper as the main, often only, example of an Autistic.

Sheldon is not the only believed to be, or confirmed, Autistic on television. Probably the two next prominent are Dwight Schrute from The Office and Abed from Community. These three characters share a lot of common traits. For starters, they are all men, and they all seem to be intelligent (yes, even Dwight). They all come from backgrounds that do not appear to be underprivileged (yes, even Dwight, too). They all have specifics areas of interest ranging from bears to beets to Battle Star Galactica to string theory, and have difficulty with humor and sarcasm. They often misinterpret rhetorical questions, and will say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Despite being regarded as annoying by nearly everyone in their shows, they are in some way loveable, which redeems them from their “flaws.” Each have their own idiosyncrasies, but they are all very similar in how they are so different from the rest of their “normal” cast mates.

If you widen the scope from television to movies and books, you see many characters that resemble those on television. Adam from Adam, Christopher from The Curious Incident with the Dog at Night Time, Donald from Mozart and the Whale, and Don Tillman from The Rosie Project, along with Dwight, Sheldon and Abed, all fit into what I call “the quirky, high-functioning Aspie” archetype. Some of these characters have Asperger’s diagnoses, some don’t, but either way, most people, like my coworker, don’t even realize they’re watching or reading about an Autistic. To most people, these people are idiosyncratic weirdos who are nonetheless loveable.

This stereotype does a lot of harm to Autistics.

But it’s not the only one. The other main stereotype we see of Autistics is, as I like to call it, “the ultimate burden.” Suzanne Wright conjured up this image in her November address last year in which she referred to us as lost kids. It’s the same image that is brought up whenever the Autism epidemic is talked about, or when a parent or an Autistic child who needs serious support begs us to find a cure so their child can become normal.

This is the image of Autistics that Autism Speaks, the mainstream scientific community, and the news media often portray. In recent years, they have been acknowledging the quirky, high-functioning Aspie more and more. Yet more often than not, these sources nearly exclusively talk about Autistics as if 90% of us were an ultimate burden.

Now, these stereotypes tend to highlight and focus on some of the extremes from the Autism spectrum. There are people like the quirky, high-functioning Aspie. My grandpa is one. And there are also Autistics who do require near constant assistance. My mom has worked, mostly tangentially, with several.

My criticism of these two stereotypes isn’t a rejection of those two ends of the spectrum. Rather, it’s a call to understand that there is so much Autistic diversity in the world. When only a tiny fraction of the spectrum is represented, most Autistics become even more marginalized. It becomes even more difficult for neurotypicals to relate to us, and can lead to misunderstand and mistreatment of Autistics.

Detective Sonya Cross sits at her desk facing the camera, her eyes shifted to our right. She's wear a gray sweater, a white undershirt, and her expression is taught.
Detective Sonya Cross sits at her desk facing the camera, her eyes shifted to our right. She’s wear a gray sweater, a white undershirt, and her expression is taught.

There are glimmers of hope out there, currently. For example, the FX The Bridge has Diane Kruger playing an Autistic (Asperger’s) character that, while in many ways similar to the quirky, high functioning Aspie model, in many ways complicates the narrative. The role is consulted on by Wrong Planet founder Alex Plank. This is good, but still far from where depiction of Autistics needs to be.

Going forward, I hope that the media, collectively, can construct a more nuanced collective image of Autistics. The more that neurotypicals understand that we are a diverse collection of people–just like they are–I believe that they will be better able and more willing to understand us individually, our needs and our accommodations, and our skills and our strengths. They will be able to empathize with us more, and I believe will have a better ability to start conversations about how to make spaces they inhabit Autistic friendly, safe, and affirming.

❤ Piija Suoynna Riistia


That’s Not What Makes Me Crazy, Part 1

Trigger Warnings: expletives, ableist language

This morning, I had a lot of decisions to make–to go to the gym (the right decision), or to stay home (the lazy decision); to get breakfast from Nob Hill (the cheaper option) or Whole Foods (the better option); to bring my change of clothes with me to the Aquarium and change before leaving (the comfortable choice), or to keep them in the car and change when I got to my final destination (the more comfortable choice).

UN Statistics Division Map of European Regions. Shaded in blue are Northern European countries England, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonian, Latvia, and Lithuania. In turquoise are Central European countries, in green are Southern European countries, and in pink are Eastern European countries.
UN Statistics Division Map of European Regions. Shaded in blue are Northern European countries England, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonian, Latvia, and Lithuania. In turquoise are Central European countries, in green are Southern European countries, and in pink are Eastern European countries.

I was also feeling really antsy. Two days ago, a coworker had made the assertion that Estonia was in Eastern Europe, which, according to the EU, the UN, EuroVoc and nearly every reputable source, it is not. I told him it was a Northern European country, and he said I was wrong, and that he didn’t care. So I drew him a map of Europe and it’s political boundaries during a quiet few moments to show him that Estonia was not in fact in Eastern Europe, whose boundary is considered Russia, Belarus and Poland to the North. He didn’t care, and still maintained it’s in Eastern Europe. That really bugged me. And still does.

I was also thrown off by a power outage that began around 6:43 (at least, that’s when my computer’s internet failed) this morning, and was still feeling a bit stimulated after a family party last night.

So, on the way to the gym in the morning, in between belting out Alanis Morissette (LOL), I talked to myself. A lot. And I worked through some of the decisions. And I explained again my frustration that my coworker refused to listen about something on which he was clearly wrong.* As well as my frustration that the power had to fail at 6:43. And then I did some soothing self-talk to help myself get in a good mindset after the stress from last night and this morning and two days ago.

Thinking out loud can be something super helpful, even powerful, for many Autistics and me. It’s calming. It helps some of us deal with anxiety constructively. When speaking aloud perseveratively, it eases the tension that I and some others feel when those around us do or say something incorrect, and it’s not social acceptable recognize or explain their error. And it can also serve as the vector for which I and some others are most comfortable when thinking in words.

For example, when I was a kid and I was told to think about something silently and come back with a response, it was almost impossible for me to do so. I would try to think of something constructively, but I couldn’t. It was like my mind went blank. And then I would be called on to respond. The first few seconds I would falter…but once I had uttered a few words, I was right on track, and I could process a logical answer.

As I’ve gotten older, I’m able to think in words in my head much better than when I was a kid, but nonetheless, there are times when I need to speak aloud to myself. Nothing else will quell the anguish or overload I’m feeling. Sometimes I’m in the car this morning, or my bedroom, and it’s no one will know or be bothered.

But other times, I’m in public, say walking on the recreational path to my car after work, and I’m perseverating on the elderly women who got mad at me because I refused her free entry into the Aquarium with her grandchild on her deceased-of-two-year’s aunt’s more-than-a-year-long-expired-membership-card.

Work can be difficult, especially when I have to listen to someone tell me absolute bullshit, and still smile, be respectful, and take the blame for erroneous things they did, do, or continue to do, despite my and others’ reminders not to. That’s a sentiment that nearly all of my coworkers share with me from time to time. But whereas they (neurotypical by assumption) can brush the feelings off or ignore them, I can’t, at least not easily.

Speaking my frustrations aloud takes the pressure in my head away, or at least lessens it. And on the bike trail for the past few months, whenever people weren’t around, I would speak to myself, working through the emotions I was feeling and their causes. It helped a lot. But as soon as I saw people, I’d shut up. I didn’t want them to see me speak to myself.

I’ve learned over the years that talking to myself is Not Allowed. And not just in English. Talking to myself in Trianese (my 3 year old language), Gaeillans (my 11-16 year old language), Latin, Ancient Greek, Spanish and Portuguese was also Not Allowed. I found this out because my family told me multiple times for each that it bugged the fuck out of them, that it was weird, and that I needed to stop, on top of the fact that they hated that I was speaking in a language they couldn’t understand.

I still feel ashamed when I feel the urge to process words aloud. But I’m trying to work through it. Last night after a very busy day at work, I started speaking aloud. The trail was crowded with people, but I didn’t pay attention to their stares. Sometimes I spoke in English, other times in Portuguese, but in both I decompressed from the day’s stress, soothed myself, and congratulated myself for eating a good lunch.

Yes, I felt uncomfortable having people stare at me, but I also felt so much relieved being able handle the world around me in the way that felt most comfortable, and worked most effectively for me.

❤ Piija Suoynna Riistia (The blog alter ego I’ve settled on!)

Autistic Ally Tip: Try and let Autistics speak allow if they need to. And if you want them to stop, try and understand why–is it because you need silence (in which case, try and frame it as you need silence, not that you need them to shut up), or is it because you find it a bit ‘crazy’ or ‘weird’?

Related Links:

*I would have enjoyed if he had a well-structured argument to defend his assertion. The CIA world fact book, for example, lists Estonia in Eastern Europe (it’s the only reputable source to do so). Now, I have serious issues with their classification of Eastern Europe–it doesn’t include many countries conventionally included. But he could have argued that its history with Russia warranted a Eastern European labeling.

Who Are You?

W A blue sketch caterpillar from Alice and Wonderland, with a humanesque face and a hookah pipe in his hand, leaning against a leaf, while standing on a mushroom.

“Who are you?” I ask myself some days, and i usually settle on “a political, white, queer, trans, Autistic, mentally disabled femme non-human organism, who loves languages and being generally kooky.” I’m 21, I’m from Del Rey Oaks, California (think Monterey Peninsula), I’ve worked at an Aquarium which shall remain nameless for 8 years i a variety of volunteer and staff positions, I’m fluent in three languages, hopefully someday will be fluent in twelve, and I want to live in either Washington State, in the Puget Sound area, or in Southern Brazil (or Belo Horizonte), when I eventually decide to “settle down.”

I’m creating this blog to have a collection of my writings in one place, as well as to publish thoughts of my own whenever they pop into my head. I still can’t help but feel a little bloated getting a blog, but I’ve been told I write well (except by three, extremely vitriolic commenters) and this might be fun.

Regardless, stuff you might read me write about include: queer stuff! Autistic stuff! language stuff! food stuff! colonial stuff! pop culture stuff! book stuff! farming stuff! and more stuff!

Me! A young white woman with brown hair were a bandana, rafia hoop earrings and a plaid shirt dress looking down. Covering just a bit of her face to our right is a cast iron skillet hanging from a ceiling rack. She is in a kitchen.
Me! A young white woman with brown hair were a bandana, rafia hoop earrings and a plaid shirt dress looking down. Covering just a bit of her face to our right is a cast iron skillet hanging from a ceiling rack. She is in a kitchen.

Autistic Stuff:

Autistic, Part 1: In which I open a conversation about how I came to identify as Autistic.

Autistic, Part 2: In which i explain some ways to be a good ally to Autistics.

Brazil/Russia/World Cup/Olympics Stuff:

Minha Casa, Minha Vida: In which I detail some issues facing Brazil with regards to the World Cup and Olympics. Note: I wrote this in 2012, well before the protests during the summer of 2013 during/after the bus fare hike and Confederations Cup was a thing, so it’s not something I’d recommend reading if you’re looking for up-to-date analysis. Rather, it presents of a good background going forward to better understand current dynamics at play.

Faster, Higher, Stronger: In which I discuss a history of oppression and repression of the Olympics and World Cup.

Russian Sexual Politics: In which I look at the role of the East/West divide in the formation of Russia’s sexual politics.

Boycotting Boycotts of Russia: In which I look at how boycotts might not be the answer of Russia’s treatment of queers.

Challenging the Liberal Fascination with Gay, International Violence: In which I examine the role race and sexual orientation have on gay American interest in international violence.

A Discussion with Jason Cieply: In which I interview Jason Cieply, Stanford PhD. candidate and instructor in Moscow, about Russian perceptions of the West, and how Putin might have been playing us.

Queer/Trans Stuff:

Sexual Quantification: In which I deconstruct some basic Western bullshit ideology pertaining to sexuality/gender in response to  iO Tillet Wright coming to Stanford and doing problematic bullshit.

Against Marriage: In which, in the wake of the Supreme court rulings on gay marriage, I look at some basic flaws in the “we need marriage” ideology presented by the neo-liberal left, and at how marriage will not ultimately save us all.

Everyone is Gay Stuff:

All my Q and As are already compiled in this handy-dandy link!