Why The Tone Needs To Change When Discussing Autism

I’ve been asked repeatedly over the last month how I feel about the video going around depicting a child with autism walking through a mall and experiencing extreme overstimulation. The video depicts a traumatic and painful experience that feels less like a mall, which in the interest of fairness is a place I often go to when I’m having an anxiety attack if I can, and more like a nightmare. It’s a deeply cartoonish portrait of overstimulation which is honestly more like overly bright colors, sharp contrast, and overly loud noise.

So yeah I hate it.

What I really hate about the video is that it’s not called “this is what overstimulation feels like.” It’s called “this is what autism feels like.” And it’s not. It might be for some but it wasn’t even that for me as a child. It’s a cartoon that doesn’t really help.

But even if it was accurate as a portrait of overstimulation, it’d still be inaccurate due to that title. Because that’s not what just autism feels like. Autism is far more complex than just the negative elements. It has thrilling, positive sides. It has elements that don’t fit good or bad.

But none of those come up in media depictions. Instead it’s always the bad things with the occasional savantism, which I stress is very uncommon. The media fixates on how painful it must be to live our lives, set apart from everybody else and isolated. (I’m still married with a kid coming.) Even the good things, like our obsessions acquire a negative cast as insulating us from the outside world when they’re the opposite in the internet age.

There’s likely a good reason for it: negativity sells. Anybody who watches video reviewers knows they make more money doing cynical reviews than positive ones. I get higher hit counts on my angry posts than my positive ones which honestly don’t ever draw much interest though I put as much of myself in them. My podcast gets our biggest hits for bad movies.

It makes sense in our case. Negativity feels “more real” to people as opposed to the fluffy glurge forced down our throats. Think about how bad the inspiring stories about autism feel. They insult us because they depict us adhering to neurotypical norms, thus insulting us by assuming we shouldn’t be held to basic standards and that these norms are the ideal. So efforts to change the tone usually come off as leaning too heavily on those. And that’s not the answer.

The answer lies with us. We need to explain what we like about the condition because there are ways it can be helpful. I’m a newspaper buff who’s spent countless hours browsing old newspapers. I’ve also spent far more building that very paper. That’s attributable to my autism. I’m a passionate writer. Same source. I’m empathetic in ways many aren’t. It has its roots in that framework in my head.

Why do we need to do this? Because of the generation below us. There is an entire generation that doesn’t know there is hope. All they’re hearing is how hard it is. And yes, it is hard. But there’s light too. We can be the ones to change all the horrible thoughts they’re feeling.

We are the ones who know the good. We need to be the ones to shout down and counter these videos and these stories. Autism doesn’t feel like that. What it feels like might not be easy to describe but it’s worth discussing all the same.