There is just one stereotype about autistic people that will not die: the idea that we’re all geniuses at maths, technology and science. I think some of this comes from the stereotyped, sexist ideas that people like Simon Baron-Cohen and his followers spread in their writings about the ‘extreme male’, ‘systemising’ brain that focusses on factual, quantifiable information, rather than more subjective or interpersonal aspects of their environment. There may also be some influence from the diagnostic criteria of autism that characterise people on the spectrum as ‘lacking imagination’ and seeing things more concretely than abstractly, and the ‘hard’ sciences are thought to be rather objective, concrete and unambiguous. (Of course, that’s not true; science is full of unsolved mysteries that researchers seek to find out, and mathematicians can be some of the most imaginative people around, but stereotypes are ridiculous and annoyingly pervasive.) Noël discussed this about two years ago in his article ‘”Systemising”, Jacob Barnett and Autistic Stereotyping’. I feel as though this stereotype is far too generalised – is every single non-autistic person interested in arts and the humanities? I really don’t think so.
Yes, there are lots of autistic people who are interested in maths and the ‘hard’ sciences. There are lots of people not on the spectrum who are too. Whenever you look at a large group of people and decide that they must all have identical interests, you’re not simply analysing their brain type; you’re drawing crude caricatures of them. This is no different from ‘Women are horrible at maths and sciences’ and ‘Men can’t empathise’ and ‘East Asians are all maths geniuses’. These categories of people are far too broad to attach a single group of interests to them, as though they’re all clones of the same person. Yes, some men struggle with empathy, but not all do. In fact, I would say most don’t struggle with it. Do some women struggle with maths? Of course, but many men do too. (Not to mention that a lot of women’s struggles with maths stem from stereotype threat and negative attitudes towards women doing ‘objective’ subjects at school, rather than women’s innate ‘inferiority’ at such tasks.) There are some East Asians who are brilliant at maths, but there are some who routinely fail their algebra exams. No one group can be characterised with such broad stereotypes. There are commonalities between autistic people, but assuming that they all have the same interests and aptitudes is grossly unfair and misleading.
This stereotype can be incredibly damaging to those of us whose strengths lie in other domains. There are lots of autistic people who are stronger in language than they are in maths, and prefer art and literature to the sciences. People who don’t fit into the ‘maths/science/technology genius’ stereotype may be seen as ‘not being autistic enough’ because they can’t make fast calculations in their head, programme robots, conduct clever science experiments or memorise the periodic table. This might especially be hurtful to those of us who lean towards artistic and literary works, or people who choose to study the humanities rather than the sciences. There are people on the spectrum who would rather be poets, historians, journalists, novelists and painters, and those interests don’t make them any less autistic than those of us who want to become engineers, computer programmers, accountants, IT specialists or pure mathematicians. Even within our own community, some brains work differently. That’s just people in general, really. We’re not all alike.
In our system, there’s a tendency towards having people who tend to fall between the ‘humanities vs science’ divide, each approaching it in their own particular ways. There are some collective tendencies, though; our mathematical struggles affect everyone. It’s sort of obnoxious, actually. Maths is definitely not our strong point. There are many things that we understand conceptually, but it’s difficult for us to actually get things right if we’re sitting down to try and work out a particular problem. Quite a few of us are technophiles, but at the same time, we don’t know how to write software, and the majority of us (save Darwin) have little time to be poking around in the command line when a GUI does the job. And we straddle the boundaries anyway, as we’re pursuing a social science degree and have interests in combining scientific rigour with humanistic thought and analysis. It’s a lot more complicated and less hierarchical than people imagine it is.