Not all people with autism are “scientists”. But the stereotype has significant costs for mental health.


“My experiences have made me feel that people with autism are only valued if they are a ‘genius’ or a ‘scholar’ – otherwise, society does not accept us… If you are excellent at something, then all is well. ; otherwise it’s traumatic, ”said Rishabh Birla, 25.

Her experience resonated deeply with me – although I didn’t know I was autistic until my mid-twenties, the sensory, communication, social and motor difficulties resulting from my autism had made me feel left out and undervalued. all my life. Until I learned to hide my autism, the only times I felt valued as a person was when I was excellent academically. Even now, sometimes when I tell people that I have autism, I can see them burning to wonder if I have “special abilities.” The stereotype that people with autism have “super” skills to compensate for their neurodivergency continues to thrive.

Scientist syndrome occurs when a person with an intellectual disability demonstrates exceptional skill or genius in one or more areas. In fact, it is estimated that only about 10% of individuals across the spectrum have scholarly abilities.

Tanuka Ray, a psychotherapist from Kolkata, who is neurodivergent herself, recalls meeting a parent who was disappointed that her autistic son did not have extraordinary math skills or a photographic memory to compensate for his autism. “It added to her ‘frustration’ with her child,” she says. During her work as a pediatric behavioral therapist several years ago, she mentions meeting another child with autism whose parents very clearly favored her neurotypical younger sister over him because he did not have an autistic child. high intelligence quotient to compensate for his autism.

Ray adds that the stereotype can, in fact, affect an autistic child’s academic progress, in addition to preventing them from accessing any support they might need to navigate systems designed for neurotypical people. She remembers parents who refused to let their children work with special educators – although they were told by the school that “their child might have difficulties with math, language or perception” – due to either autism, or even ADHD. Ray believes that this denial of support may also be the result of parents’ belief that “their children were meant to be geniuses” because they were neurodivergent.

“At school, I was neither valued nor accepted. But in ninth and tenth grades, when I had excellent grades… suddenly I was respected, accepted and appreciated by the teachers, as well as by other students and their parents, ”Rishabh recalls. He added that people befriended him in college as well, when he was doing well academically, but he “walked away” once he started needing help. ‘school support. It had an impact on his confidence and self-esteem.

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A neurotypical society therefore only values ​​- or at least accepts – autistic individuals when they can either “fit in” to its neurotypical standards by camouflaging their autism, or compensate for it with “special” abilities. As Louise, a social media advocate for autism, wrote, “Unless autistic existence benefits neurotypicals, people with autism are not considered ‘worthy’ … [it] tends to put pressure on [autistic] people to behave in certain ways in order to feel valuable to society.

In a society sorely lacking in awareness of the autism spectrum – or even that autism is a specter – pop culture becomes the source of information. And in the process, people with autism disadvantage. As a 2009 article noted, much of what society knows about autism is based on media portrayals of characters with autism – often written and performed by people without autism.

By Shaun Murphy in The good doctor, to Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, to Fiona Helbron in Elementary – there are countless representations of autistic (and “suspected” autistic) characters in pop culture who describe neurodivergency as a “disability” “superpower”. This perpetuates the myth of the “model neurominance” – derived from the term “model minority” coined by sociologist William Petersen in 1966, which refers to positive stereotypes about certain members of marginalized groups – by setting benchmarks impossible for other members. and creating “porn inspiration” for the non-marginalized.

One of the most successful performances of autism in the cinema took place in the years 1988 Rain man, which entrenched the stereotype – influencing collective consciousness for decades to come. “Rain manThe influence of on the way autism is viewed culturally is incalculable… Before Rain man, there was no popular conception of what autism looked like, among the public or on screen, ”a Guardian article read. “But an influence, no matter how mild or well-intentioned, can become suffocating if left to flourish for too long.” And he has.

In fact, writer Karl Knights noted that “the movie has become such a shortcut, that I and every person with autism that I know must immediately caution the ‘I am autistic’ statement with ‘I am not. Rain man‘”- reminiscent of Shahrukh Khan’s trademark dialogue from a 2010 Bollywood film, where he repeats over and over again” My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist. “Interestingly, his character in the film is also autistic and, unsurprisingly, dubbed a “genius” – educating an entire generation of Indians, myself included, what autism “looks like”.

The idea that people with autism are “extraordinary” may be “well-intentioned” but perpetuates the inherent ableism of society – by “furthering” an already marginalized group. “… Suggesting that people with autism are superheroes or somehow have special powers…” [is] a way for… society to “other” us and to distance ourselves from autistic people, ”notes Louise.

Moreover, it may be because of society’s general discomfort with disabilities – more ableism – that the stereotype of “autistic geniuses” flourished as much as it did. The media alleviate the discomfort of a broadly valid audience by putting a positive spin on disability using terms like “brave” and “inspiring” – the constant portrayal of people with autism as “geniuses” works the same way.

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In order to combat the stereotype, Shaneel Mukerji, a specialist educator and therapist from Kolkata, believes in the proper dissemination of information about autism to those caring for children with autism – not referring to autistic characters in the culture. pop to explain what autism is and, instead, referring to the myriad of ways it typically manifests itself and stressing the fact that no two people with autism are the same.

However, given how much people associate being autistic with being a genius – perhaps due to years of social conditions – undoing it might not be an easy process.

Additionally, while therapists like Mukerji are successful in educating caregivers of children with autism, in a country where the ratio of mental health workers to people is dismal, it may not be possible to bridge the information gap and educate classmates, colleagues and other acquaintances of people with autism. Thus always leaving them sensitive to comments that make them feel inadequate for not being able to “compensate” for their autism.

As such, the cinema and its harmful stereotypes around neurodivergency become the manual of autistic behavior – wreaking havoc on the mental health of people with autism and “altering” them.

Every person with autism is different, just like no two neurotypical people are the same. Considering how the impact of cinema on people’s understanding of autism is so pronounced, the solution, perhaps, for non-autistic filmmakers who choose to make money from depictions of autism , to involve Actually people with autism in the process and offer the public a window into Actually autistic experiences.


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