Autistic people are not framed well in the media: Why?

When we think about autism in the Autistic community, an infinite number of moving points coalesce to create countless individuals with a shared experience. One might argue that to be Autistic is to meet a certain set of limited criteria, but many of us understand that autism is more than a simple diagnosis. You can then understand our frustration with how our existence is framed in the media. From news outlets to Hollywood movies, our lives are interpreted in less than favourable terms time and time again.

Understanding the Autistic performance

Titchkovsky (2007) discusses disability as something we do. In this context, we not only are disabled; we do disability. Being Autistic can be viewed in much the same way. We do autism, we perform autistically. In my book A Treatise on Chaos I explore the Self as a moving a fluid entity. To belong to the Autistic community is to embody the Self in an Autistic way.

This means that to perform an Autistic embodiment, we are not constrained by another’s idea of what being Autistic is. We define autism as much as autism defines us. There is no wrong or right way to be Autistic.

How does the media undermine the Autistic performance?

“They finally knew what was wrong with their shy, diffident son who would one day shoot and kill 20 children and six adults…”

McCoy (2014)

The above quote is from a Washington Post article linking autism to mass murder. I wish I could say such stories are rare, but sadly the media is full of them. It seems that every time a mass atrocity is committed, there is a rush to pin the blame on neurodevelopmental differences or mental health issues.

This sensationalist and reductive approach to Autistic people strips us of our humanity. It not only others us, it creates a level of fear and stigma surrounding our existence. Media reporting like this makes us a potential threat to be contained by society rather than free agents with the potential to contribute to our world.

Why does the media portray Autistic people in this way?

The world fears inhuman acts. When atrocities happen, it is easy to look for a way to distance ourselves from them. One need never fear becoming a monster if what we see as monstrous is fundamentally different to us. Historically, autism has been a diagnosis for the improper human; thus, if Autistic people are the ones committing monstrous acts, then the every day person can rest in the knowledge that they will never become one.

There is more to it, though. Autistic, as an identifier, has gone through a sort of pejoration as our community fights for equitable rights. As we become more vocal, those with privilege slowly guide the consensus on the meaning of autism to become less human, less than human, inhuman. If we can be made into monsters, it is less likely that our rights will become undeniable.

How do Autistic people take back the meaning of autism?

Autistic people must seek to subvert pejorative ideas by demonstrating their undeniably human lives. We must work to restructure the foundations of our society so that the every day Autistic person can be openly Autistic in defiance of dehumanisation of our existence. We must show those fluid and moving parts of ourselves in a way that annunciates our inability to be contained by stigma and hatred.

More than anything, we must perform our Autistic performance in such a way that we reverse the pejoration of our identity.