The myth of autism superpowers and the dangers of positive stereotypes

I love the movie Rain Man. What’s not to love about it? Incredible script. Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman doing first rate work. It’s moving. It’s touching. It’s pretty accurate as a portrait of lower functioning autism. There are things in the film I’ve seen captured nowhere else such as severe overstimulation and a strict adherence to routine. It’s a fine film and I’m not bothered by its classic status.

So what a shame it’s responsible for making everything harder for us by propagating the myth of autism superpowers. Rain Man marked the moment where society watched a guy count toothpicks and decided that applied to all of us. Things haven’t gotten better in the modern day with the never actually diagnosed but thought of as autistic Sherlock Holmes on the BBC series Sherlock being depicted as a genius at all he does but a jerk. Such autistic geniuses are spread throughout the media. This has led to a very common assumption that autistics might have issues but hey, there’s something cool they can do that a normal person can’t!

I’ll be blunt: it doesn’t work that way. There’s no hard data but I’ve heard a number of roughly 1 in 10 autistics have savantism, which was depicted in Rain Man. That’s not that many people. Characters like Sherlock are incredibly rare which makes sense. The character is Sherlock Holmes, the detective version of a superhero! Most heirs to industrial fortunes aren’t expected to be Iron Man. But since Sherlock’s a popular character in a seemingly realistic realm, he’s getting treated like he represents us. (Again, he’s undiagnosed, I stress.)

This stereotype likely stems from something that I do believe to be true, the image of the “little professors” Hans Asperger observed. This I don’t have a qualm with since it’s true in my own life. I’m an expert on film and comics. I can rattle off as many inane facts about Marvel as I have breath to do so. But that’s not a superpower. That’s a compulsive interest fostered over 30 years. It’s also fundamentally worthless. I can hang out on Twitter but I sure can’t make money off of it.

Many of the people I’ve met in the community are the same way. Diehard hobbyists and some are extremely good at their interest of choice but it’s because they studied it. We’re a bit more focused, sure, but that’s really the only edge I’ve seen. Furthermore, our interests can be rather alienating. So it’s a mixed blessing.

The thing is, I really think the media thinks it’s fine to perpetuate this myth. After all, it makes us look good. Who doesn’t want to be seen as having a brain that can see things in a cool, weird way? That’s awesome! It’s a flattering image that beats the image of the helpless autistic.

My issue with it is simple: it’s still false and kinda dehumanizing. Ok, it’s the other end of the spectrum from a weakling but it still otherizes us. It’s still putting us in that weird category of someone different from the NTs. Instead we’re supergenuises who can crack any problem but might not be nice. (I’ve hit that one enough.)

And imagine what it does to those of us who aren’t? I mean, there’s already a giant social stigma. Now we’re not even successful autistics? We also then get grilled by well meaning stupid people about the cool things we can do. Who wants that?

I’m not as angry about this cliche as the alternative, mind you. I mean, the two works I cited are a movie and a TV show I love. I just feel like there needs to be more realism. Positive stereotypes might be positive, but they’re still stereotypes.

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