Too many depictions of autistic people rely on tired clichés. The neurotypical world needs to take note of our own voices.
I found myself at a lunch table recently with a journalist, a sociologist and a business psychologist, which sounds like the set-up for a bad joke. We were discussing Silicon Valley, and its notorious working culture of long hours and company-dictated leisure time. ‘The problem, of course,’ said the sociologist, ‘is that these businesses are institutionally autistic.’
‘I’m autistic,’ I said. ‘Can you explain what you mean by that term?’
A look of slight consternation crossed his face, followed by something very much like annoyance. There I was, being autistic-by-stealth in his company, then having the temerity to question an analysis that he clearly thought rather witty and incisive.
‘I mean,’ he said, a little more carefully, ‘that these companies are run by men who probably have Asperger syndrome.’ A pause. I raise my eyebrows. ‘And so there’s a lack of … emotional understanding.’
It’s hard to imagine any other situation in which a group of educated, liberal adults would conjure a marginalised group as a shorthand for awful. Imagine describing an organisation as institutionally black, institutionally female or institutionally Muslim. Yet, somehow, intelligent people can drop ‘autistic’ into conversation whenever they want to draw a contrast between the unfeeling, insensitive, uncreative parts of this world, and their bright, emotional, magnificent selves.
Asperger syndrome has replaced schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as the weapon of choice for the amateur diagnostician. The problem is not that these comments are snide, divisive and politically incorrect – although they are. Asperger syndrome is in fact an increasingly outmoded term, with both diagnosticians and activists preferring to use the catch-all ‘autism’ now.
But it has become synonymous with a folk understanding of ‘high-functioning’ autism that has spread like wildfire in recent years, and which is entirely wrong. That the problem exists at all might even point us to some of the deficits in understanding experienced by nonautistic people.
Perhaps you remember Christopher Boone? He likes prime numbers and mathematical puzzles, but finds metaphors and jokes extremely confusing. His pattern-recognising abilities are extraordinary, although sometimes they tip him over into distress, particularly if he passes four yellow cars in a row while he’s on the bus. His mechanical understanding of the world around him is endearing, but frustrating to those trying to shepherd him towards adult life. Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) is a kind of ground zero for the contemporary understanding of autism.
It was a surprise hit, published simultaneously in editions for adults and for children, and sold a million copies in its first year. Haddon’s unlikely child-hero Christopher (who’s determined to unravel how his neighbour’s dog came to be impaled on a garden fork) was different from his predecessor, Raymond, or ‘Rain Man’ in the eponymous 1988 film starring Dustin Hoffman.
Certainly, he had the same flair for maths and patterning, and the same baffled response to the illogical behaviour of people around him. But, unlike Raymond, Christopher was cute. Vulnerable, motherless, laughably ill-equipped for everyday life, he exuded a bewildered charm that made him loveable. He was the ultimate underdog who triumphs because of his unique way of seeing the world, rather than despite it.