Normal Is Overrated

Musings and meanderings on the autistic spectrum

May 1, 2009

Assumptions, Assumptions

So it’s Blogging Against Disablism Day once again. I’d been thinking for the past couple days about what precisely I want to blog about today… and then it hit me yesterday.


People tend to make assumptions of a person’s abilities and general nature based on that person’s appearance. But sometimes these assumptions turn out to be incorrect. Some people adjust their personal stereotypes to adjust for their errors; others cling to their assumptions and classify these cases as exceptions to the rule.

You’re all probably familiar with this sort of dynamic as it applies to such matters as race and gender… but yes, it applies to disability as well. And in fact, I’ve seen it happen in two different directions in just my own experience.

I’m considered a high-functioning autistic; in most cases, I’m not all that indistinguishable from a neurotypical. But just because I appear ‘normal’ in most circumstances doesn’t mean that I am— as people discover when I’m put into certain situations that do give me difficulty.

For just a few examples: I can’t drive safely because my visual perception is just garbled enough to be dangerous. I can’t carry on conversations in noisy bars because I can’t hear one person above the crowd. There are some people I can’t even carry on phone conversations with because their voices are unintelligible to me over the phone.

Yet many people have difficulty believing I have trouble with these things… because, in other circumstances, I don’t look disabled at all. Even when they’ve seen me in the circumstances that give me trouble, many people don’t believe that these issues are, in fact, issues; I’ve been accused on more than a few occasions of deliberately exaggerating my difficulties when I was trying to do no such thing.

And of course, it gets worse when I’m stressed and the coping strategies start flying out the window. In these cases, I start acting more stereotypically autistic, with such behaviors as hand-flapping (which, though it appears a bit quirky, I should stress is completely harmless). With even more stress, I start having trouble speaking, further puzzling people who have known me in circumstances where I could speak perfectly fluently.

In essence, because I present ‘normally’ in a typical scenario, people make the mistaken assumption that I am neurotypical, and are quite surprised when the autistic quirks start coming out of the metaphorical woodwork, when they find out that I can’t drive a car even after years of practice, or when they try holding a phone conversation with me and it ends up being made of Epic Failure To Communicate. Some people do realize that yes, these things are in fact issues for me, and make appropriate accommodations; others, on the other hand, remain convinced that these things couldn’t be difficult for me despite the evidence.

Several of my acquaintances from various autistic forums online have the opposite issue: they’re extremely intelligent and quite eloquent in writing, and yet their presentation in the offline world is one that could hardly be considered ‘normal’. In their case, their intelligence has ended up being underestimated by people who saw someone with typical autistic behaviors who was using a communication device rather than speaking— never mind, of course, that neither autistic behaviors nor the use of alternative communication says a thing about overall intelligence— and who refused to adjust their stereotypes even in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise.

It’s quite frustrating in either direction.

And the thing is, I honestly can’t blame people for making these initial assumptions; it’s an easy trap to fall into. I do, however, think that sticking to these assumptions even in spite of evidence is very much worth criticism. And I also think it’s worth trying to work against the larger stereotypes that lead to these assumptions— by, for instance, emphasizing that the use of a communication device indicates nothing about one’s intelligence, or that just because someone appears healthy doesn’t mean they aren’t disabled.

And this leads to one of my biggest problems with a lot of the disability ‘awareness’ campaigns out there: they only enforce these stereotypes further, rather than working against them. Just thinking back on the autism awareness ads I’ve seen, I still see a lot of doom-and-gloom scenarios talking about how most autistics will never live independently, will never have significant others, etc.— but, with the exception of the recent Autistic Self Advocacy Network campaign, can think of very few cases that have shown that autistics on the high-functioning end of the spectrum exist or that lower-functioning autistics can still hold successful lives without a cure.

Now compare the traditional autism awareness ad to this wonderful commercial from United Cerebral Palsy, which takes the traditional stereotypes about CP…and turns them completely on their head. Unlike most of the autism awareness ads I’ve seen, UCP’s ad campaign is all about destroying these sorts of stereotypes; I honestly wish there were more autism PSAs along these same lines.

So, in short: Be careful with the assumptions you make; you might be surprised at how wrong they may be.

Filed under: Blog Carnival,General — codeman38 @ 1:35 pm


  1. The interesting thing about people who refuse to change their stereotypical judgments based on new evidence is that they often wind up losing huge amounts of money to con artists. That’s because a con artist’s MO is to make a really good first impression and then ask you to do something that you normally wouldn’t even consider. But if you’ve already pegged him as a Good Person and you’re unwilling/unable to change that judgment, then you’ll come up with all sorts of wild rationalizations why you should do what he’s asking.

    Comment by ebohlman — May 1, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  2. People make similar assumptions about me, especially because I’m a girl. And girls are *never* autistic, right? I hate that the more NT the person I’m talking to (and/or the more stressful the situation), the more my traits start coming out. Whereas I can hide it otherwise.

    But because I look typical and can mimic expressions and intonations, people assume that the social mistakes I make are intentional attempts to hurt them. It must be because I’m a woman? There are so many sides to autism that people just don’t know about. Like you, I wish we could do something about this.

    Comment by Sandy — May 1, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

  3. […] Normal Is Overrated […]

    Pingback by ThePickards » Bloggers Blogging Against Disablism (BBAD does BADD) — May 2, 2009 @ 4:05 am

  4. I really love this post!

    Comment by Gonzo — May 2, 2009 @ 9:08 am

  5. I just don’t know what to do about some people’s tendency to make quick assumptions other than trying to provide gentle education. This goes outside the realm of disabilities to the realm of abilities where some people assume others are lazy just because they haven’t achieved the things they have — it’s an assumption that everyone has limitless physical and mental energy if they choose to use it.

    Sometimes people automatically assume a young, healthy-looking person is abusing someone’s handicapped parking pass. The truth might be that the young person has a heart condition or maybe has a temporary condition from an injury or surgery.

    Assumptions are made about little things, too. Some people wonder why someone as young as me uses reading glasses. It’s true I don’t have presbyopia, so I can focus my eyes on something close while wearing my contact lenses, but I have accommodative delay which makes it difficult and could impair my distance vision.

    Comment by Adrian — May 2, 2009 @ 11:24 am

  6. I take interest in people’s personal opinions regarding this disorder, and I have to agree with every word in this blog post.

    Comment by Montana — May 2, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  7. Over and over again, during this year’s BADD, I keep coming across the fact that an important part of disabilism is the fact that people feel entitled to completely disregard the experiences of people with disabilities. So a key part of overcoming disabilism then, would be that temporarily able bodied people would recognize that a person with a disability’s experience – of their illness, of the world around them, of the way they are being treated – is valid, regardless of whether or not it matches up to their own. (Ah, the joys of privilege).

    Comment by NTE — May 2, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

  8. This hits home to me! My step son is HFA. Never having known anyone on the spectrum before, it was hard for me, at first, when he had difficulties, or an “off day” because he presents so neurotypical most of the time. I have learned a lot in the last few years about autism and continue to learn. Thanks for this blog and for all the good links.

    Comment by Marie Brant — January 28, 2010 @ 7:29 am

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