You’re a university freshman, or maybe a sophomore. You’re sitting in class—General Psychology, or maybe a different psychology class. The professor is discussing autism. Maybe you don’t know much about autism, apart from what you saw in a movie or on a TV commercial featuring sad, silent toddlers and a blue puzzle piece logo.
Or maybe you’re a psychology or special education major who is familiar with autism. Maybe you even want to work with autistic people, either because you have an autistic family member you care about, or because you’ve been told that those who help autistic people are superheroes. (Actually, being kind to autistic people doesn’t make you a hero. It just makes you a decent human, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Either way, there are a few things you really need to know.
First of all, much of what you learn about autism in your classes will likely be outdated, stereotyped, or just plain wrong. I was a college student just two years ago. I roomed with a psychology major for a year, and looked at several of her textbooks. The Educational Psychology text’s only autism-related passage was a brief discussion of the scientifically dubious “extreme male brain theory”. Autistic girls were described as rare… but we’re not. We are misunderstood and under-recognized, partly due to the misconception that autism is a “male” condition. The Abnormal Psychology text glossed over Ivar Lovaas’s abuse of autistic children, portraying him as a pioneer of autism therapy. These were not the only misleading items in the books, but I will never forget how awful they made me, an autistic student, feel.
Speaking of feelings, autistic people DO have them, though we may express and process them differently. Many of us have an abundance of empathy as well, but may not always show it in the way others expect. If a professor or textbook says we are robotic and indifferent to love and friendship, they are wrong.
And speaking of Lovaas… you will likely be taught that Applied Behavior Analysis, the treatment he founded, is the “gold standard” therapy for autism. Many autistic people strongly disagree, and many have had traumatic experiences with ABA. I strongly urge you to read what autistic people have to say about ABA, and to be aware of Lovaas’s physical and emotional violence toward the children he “treated”.
As you sit in psychology class, there may very well be an autistic student sitting in the same room. She may feel erased as she hears autism defined as a condition that mainly affects young boys. Her heart may ache as she hears an “expert” talk about using behavior modification to make people like her “indistinguishable from peers”. Perhaps she’s required to take the class, but doesn’t feel safe in the psychology department because so many mental health professionals have misunderstood and mistreated her.
I was that student, and I’m not the only one. There are autistic students at your university. If you want to understand autism, get to know them. Not as a community service project or case study (psychology majors, I’m talking to you—no one wants to be your lab rat) but as a classmate and friend. Go online and get information from autistic-led organizations such as ASAN (and please stay away from Autism Speaks). Read blog posts by autistic writers. Learn why most of us do not want a cure for autism. Learn what ableism is, what it looks like, and what you can do about it. Educate yourself so that when a professor, classmate, or textbook says something inaccurate or demeaning about autism, you can call them out on it. Please become the ally we need.