The trouble with stereotypes or ‘The reason I wish I could drive’

I was in the supermarket the other day and was having a short conversation with myself around the choice I needed to make about a product that I don’t usually buy. A person must have heard my quiet discussion with myself. They gave me that ‘You are really weird and I don’t like it’ look. Funny, because I don’t usually understand facial expressions but I have seen that one so many times I am all over it! It is odd what causes people to judge. I suppose I didn’t fit this person’s view of how I ‘should’ act and so they passed a quick judgement about me. This is a problem beyond rudeness in supermarkets sadly.

People make judgements based on limited information about a person all the time. Everyone does this. I think it may be related to earlier generations of humanity and people encountering a new person needing to know if they were going to have to defend themselves or if they had  met a friend or ally. Apparently we form a picture of a person – where they come from, their level of education, whether or not they are trustworthy, their gender identity, whether we will or won’t like them, even their political views  – after seeing them for just a few seconds. Judgements are usually based on things like physical appearance,  age, perceived ethnicity, how they speak and the clothes they are wearing. The issue its that these snap judgments are at best incomplete and very often completely wrong, but they stay with us.  A huge number of stereotypes exist and these snap judgements feed right into them. Different kinds of discrimination – ableism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism / misogyny, classism and so forth inform people’s judgements and vice versa. Many people don’t even know they are doing this which makes challenging judgements and stereotypes very difficult.

While I don’t really see myself as ‘different’ I do know that my expression (what I wear, my hairstyle, how I speak, what topics of conversation I choose etc) often mark me out as something other than the ‘norm’. It has taken me years to express myself how I want to for fear of those judgements and stereotypes and associated mistreatment. As a member of a few different minority / diversity groups, I have sometimes found myself being attacked because apparently I don’t fit into the stereotype for whichever group I am in! I guess bigots might find it frustrating that I don’t fit their expectations for an autistic person or a Queer person or whatever they are bothered about! This stuff can be really frustrating.

Stereotypes, judgements and assumptions add yet another step into the process of advocacy and activism – the step of having to explain to people that the stereotype they have based their understanding of autism around is often wrong! For example, as an autistic person I satisfy a couple of the stereotypes in that I don’t drive and I am asexual. I actually wish these things were not true for me because I find myself having to explain to people that just because these are true for me does not mean they are true for others. 

There are many people who think they know about autism (or whatever else) because they know the stereotype. This is understandably pretty counter-productive!  Stereotypes hold people back. For example, if your view of autistic people is based on seeing Rain Man and you are an employer, how likely will you be to hire an applicant who states on their application that they are autistic?  However, if you are an employer who has employed autistic staff members in the past, your view of their capability and ability to do the job will probably be less likely to be based in stereotypes and more likely based in real experience. You will probably  know that your three autistic employees all have different strengths and challenges and are very different people. If another autistic person applies to work for you, you will have will have far greater capability to understand what employing that person might involve. This is good for ‘you’ as an employer and your hypothetical workforce too! 

This trouble with stereotypes is one of the reasons I am always talking about the need to build autism knowledge in every area of society. True knowledge and experience dispels stereotypes and in doing so benefits us all. Stereotypes often come from somewhere real to some degree but have become exaggerated and applied to everyone in the group they relate to, often over many years. This is one of the things that make them so pervasive. Challenging stereotypes with real experience and knowledge is a great gift to everyone. Those snap judgements we make when seeing a new person for the first time are almost inevitable but it is so important to move beyond them and understand they are almost certainly inaccurate. Human experience is way more nuanced than applying stereotypes. When people say ‘If you have met one autistic person  you have meet one autistic person’ they are absolutely correct. I think this can be broadened to if you have met one person you have met one person.’ So let’s celebrate our wonderful diversity as people and ditch the stereotypes.

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