When did autism knock homosexuality out of the closet as the thing most people are afraid to admit about themselves?
In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control stated that 1 percent of the world’s population has autism spectrum disorder. That same year, JAMA Pediatrics published a study saying more than 3.5 million Americans are estimated to have autism. And yet, over the years, I’ve found the subject of autism to be a touchy subject to discuss in public, especially around the presence of those who might be autistic. Those few times I’ve been bold enough to ask someone who possesses the symptoms (difficulty communicating, obsessive interests, social awkwardness) if they’ve ever been diagnosed as autistic, that person usually exhibits the same combination of denial and disdain one would exude if you wondered about that person’s sexual preference.
If you’re wondering why I’m bringing this up in the Arts & Living section of this newspaper, it’s because I feel maybe people wouldn’t be tight-lipped about autism if more public figures actually admitted to being autistic. Celebrities rarely cop to being on the autism spectrum, even though several of them appear to be right there on it. (I definitely notice it whenever I see two brilliant but narcissistic men who shall remain nameless – a filmmaker and a rapper – acting controversial and egotistical in public.) If anything, they might admit to having “a touch of the Asperger’s,” as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said about himself, or that they were mildly autistic as a kid, as Courtney Love once revealed.
At the moment, there aren’t a lot of positive success stories amongst the autistic community. For every Dan Aykroyd, Daryl Hannah or Susan Boyle who has opened up about living with Asperger’s, unfortunately there is also a Robert Durst. (Asperger’s, like autism, is a pervasive development disorder but it is not as severe as autism.) And even though Sylvester Stallone and Jenny McCarthy have each brought autistic children into this world, other famous parents – like Burt Bacharach, whose daughter Nikki committed suicide at the age of 40 – have had to tragically bury theirs. (Bacharach is currently scoring a movie about a father raising an autistic child.)
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Of course, considering how people are so quick to dismiss people with mental disorders as strange, slow or just plain crazy, it’s understandable why autistic people aren’t ready to start a pride parade. In these tense and violent times, classifying mass-shooting suspects as autistic is starting to become an ignorant trend. An October New York Times op-ed piece titled “The Myth of the American Shooter” noted that a Facebook page called “Families Against Autistic Shooters” characterized the autistic as “cold, calculating killing machines,” even though fewer than 5 percent of gun crimes are committed by people with mental illnesses. (Facebook took down the page after a 5,000-signature petition from Change.org demanded its removal.) It also doesn’t help when certain aspects of pop culture make autistic people out to be lovable weirdos. TV characters who are obviously on the spectrum, like Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” or Abed from “Community,” are portrayed as usually annoying, highly intelligent and ultimately harmless.
I have a friend, Judie Strickland from Cary, who’s the mother of an autistic 11-year-old boy. When I asked her how she felt about the portrayal of autistic people in our culture, she agreed that more positive examples should come into the light.
“Yes, celebrities who display autistic characteristics should speak about their neurology and how they’ve adapted, or what they’ve adapted, in order to succeed,” Strickland said. She also believes more autistic savants, like medical researchers, nanoparticle physicists or, in Strickland’s words, “other sciency dudes,” should be celebrated for their contributions to society. “One or two sentences about their accomplishments fail to mention their autism, and it’s because of their autism, not in spite of it, that they can hyperfocus. Or, because of their autism, they think outside the box and eureka moments happen.”
As the big brother of a man who was diagnosed with autism, among other mental disorders, who passed away a few years ago, you could say I have a vested interest in this. Ever since Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for playing an autistic man in “Rain Man” nearly 30 years ago, people have long had this singular image of how an autistic person looks and behaves. But I’ve come across many types of autistic people in my time, from mild to high-functioning. And if more men and women on the spectrum would step up to the mike, not only would others follow suit, but more people would start to realize they are people too.