An inevitable part of living with Asperger’s syndrome is having to endure people’s ignorant questions and remarks. Even if these are not intended to be harmful, the result is often that they are. The reason for this is that it can be difficult enough for people with Asperger’s syndrome to integrate socially, and such remarks can further alienate someone from a society in which they already feel like they don’t belong. Mistakes are ok – it is very easy to spot someone who, in the process of learning, accidentally says something off the mark, from someone who inconsiderately opens their mouth without thinking about who it has the potential to harm. There are many myths surrounding Asperger’s syndrome, but I only have the space to cover three in this article!
So, without further ado, here are some misconceptions I want to straighten out today, regarding Asperger’s syndrome, but also autism spectrum disorder more generally.
1) There’s nothing wrong with you!
But there is an awful lot wrong with this statement, which is actually said to me quite a lot. It’s really important to keep in mind that if you’ve met someone with Asperger’s syndrome, you’ve simply met one person with Asperger’s syndrome, and that’s all there is to it. That person is not a microcosm or mouthpiece for the entire condition. Women with Asperger’s syndrome are particularly susceptible to this statement because the condition often manifests itself more internally for them – an issue I discussed in a previous piece. I think if I were to explain all the reasons why I do suffer, even though you can’t always see it, it would be unhelpful to the point I’m trying to make, because I’d then be sharing pieces of personal information that I shouldn’t have to give in response to ignorant and hurtful questions. Autistic people don’t owe you an explanation, and they do not deserve to have their experiences invalidated. End of.
2) What’s your special talent?
This question is not only ignorant, it’s also extremely insensitive. Only ten percent of autistic people exhibit ‘savant’ behaviour, i.e., only a small percentage of people on the autism spectrum have an exceptional skill that is beyond the ability of most people. Not every autistic person that you meet can play the piano with their eyes closed or is able to memorise the name and birthday of every British monarch. Being expected to have an exceptional skill can be distressing for people with autism spectrum disorder because many already feel like they’re not good enough due to the hostile message society constantly sends out. Often, autistic people think that having a special talent would somehow ‘make up’ for not fitting in or conforming to society’s expectations, and therefore they feel useless when they don’t exhibit any. It can be extremely detrimental to their mental health when people around them promote that expectation, so please do bear that in mind the next time you ask this seemingly harmless question.
3) People with Asperger’s syndrome don’t care about other people’s feelings.
When I was seventeen, just after finding out I got into uni, I was hospitalised with depression. My psychiatrist was trying to understand the reasons behind it, and I remember being asked if I was looking forward to moving on with life and whether I was excited to have a fresh start. I told her I wasn’t, because no matter how happy I ended up, I wouldn’t be able to stop the incessant suffering around me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t block out other people’s pain. I would later find out that this is called ‘empathy overload’, which is an experience describing the intense feelings of empathy experienced by people with Asperger’s syndrome. This often leads to a depressive state or indeed a meltdown. The notion that people have about people with Asperger’s syndrome lacking empathy is confused with some of them not being able to envision what it’s like for a person going through a particularly difficult experience, put simply, they have an inability to ‘walk in other people’s shoes’. This does not mean that they don’t care, just that they can’t physically picture it in their mind. I particularly hate this one, but who wouldn’t? It’s not like I can pretend I don’t feel like a serial killer every time someone asks it…
So, there you go – your daily dosage of Asperger’s facts in the fun form of mythbusting! I hope that after reading this, no one will be discouraged to ask me questions. There are many I would be more than happy to answer, as long as they’re not offensive or upsetting to me. If they are, I have every right not to respond (and to instead write a rant-y column for Qmunicate).