So I'm a day late but I still want to participate in this campaign to change the Google search results for "autistic people are."
Here is what they are now:
If you can't see the image, it's a screengrab of a Google search box with the phrase "autistic people are" and a list of four choices to complete the phrase. The four words are, in order, "annoying," "smart," "evil," and "retarded."
Annoying. Evil. Retarded.
I'll tell you, that one still surprises me. I've seen it before --- seen "autistic" used as shorthand for some moral failing, usually selfishness or a lack of empathy --- but it still astonishes me to see that people apparently see us that way. I'm used to the "empty fortress" stereotypes, where people think we have no inner lives, no thoughts, no feelings, that our words and acts are just random spewage that we cannot possibly have intended, that cannot possibly be directed at any goal, anything we want. We can't want, remember?
That's the stereotype I grew up with. It's a depressing one, and still very much alive. You can see it underlying mainstream America's indifference to the abuse, neglect, and even murder of autistic children by their parents (or other caregivers). "Kids like that are hard to take care of," people will say, "it's no wonder she snapped," or "it's no wonder they weren't up to the job," or "What else were they supposed to do?" And the kids themselves, their deaths don't seem as tragic as the death of a normal child would be. Their lives were cut short, but what kind of a life would it have been, really? These people never grow up, they just get older. Forty years old, sitting in your parents' living room? That's no kind of a life at all. Isn't it almost for the best, to have spared them that?
(No, it's not for the best. In case you were wondering.)
But apparently there's a new stereotype coexisting with this one, that of the stone-cold killer. It cropped up in the coverage of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and also of the one in Aurora, Colorado. People were asking, like they always do, who had done this, and how could they have done it? And one of the answers was, "It was a disturbed young man who may have been on the autism spectrum."
I don't know exactly when that autism stereotype started to take root in the public mind; it seems to have come up as people have started to be more aware that some autistic people can speak, go to school, attend mainstream classes, and do very well academically. When I was a child, this was not generally known, and people often expressed surprise that a child as articulate and precocious as I was could have autism.
Like Landon Bryce, I blame Simon Baron-Cohen's increasingly popular conception of autism for this development. I know that Professor Baron-Cohen does not think autistic people are evil, or even that we don't have feelings for other people, but the terminology he chose to use --- calling us poor "empathizers" --- conjures exactly that image in a reader's mind.
All head and no heart.
This, of course, is one of the reasons why I'm not mollified by seeing "smart" on the list as well: because I know that the Autistic Genius trope can blend seamlessly into the stone-cold killer. Both are unhindered by emotion or personal attachment, both can act with equal ruthlessness. The only difference is in what they do, how they direct their dispassionate efforts.
(The other reason is that smartness is often seen as a consolation prize: oh, you're autistic? You must be GREAT at math! What's that? You're not? Well, what good are you then?!)
So, what would I like people to know that autistic people are?