Marginalization and the stigma against autism

Last week, Lawrentian op-ed writer Mara Kissinger talked about having SAD and the stigma against mental illness. As someone with a mental illness, I felt inspired to contribute my own thoughts to the conversation. That being said, I want to mention a few of the ideas taught in my film studies class a few weeks ago. Furthermore, it is equally important to analyze and point out stereotypes about and stigma against mental illness or, in my case, autism.

In film studies, we discussed the “ugliness” imposed upon marginalized groups – how people deviant from the norm are perceived as ugly. Anyone of an oppressed group is not seen as beautiful or desirable in the eyes of mainstream culture. Rather than attempting to become beautiful, however, the articles we read advocated for an embrace of the magnificent and ugly; identifying with the “sideshow freaks.” This train of thought is somewhat difficult to adopt because it requires courage to take pride in one’s ugliness and shame. By writing this article, though, I hope to inspire others to follow suit.

According to “Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability,” by writer and activist Mia Mingus, reclaiming the “otherness” you have been associated with prevents other people from weaponizing it against you. It brings it into the public, confronting those who would marginalize “freaks.” Subsequently, leaving evidence of and creating media about the freaks is important to prove that there are ways to live other than those presented by the mainstream. Rather than assimilating to what is prized by mainstream culture, marginalized groups must resist by living alternatively and voicing alternative views. The best way to revolutionize against the capitalist patriarchal white supremacist mainstream society is to act contrary to what it idealizes. Simply put, we must reject stereotypes and be compassionate towards one another.

Beyond being considered ugly, there are structural barriers for marginalized people, as well. One setting in which these barriers are most prominent is the public education system. People who are larger than the norm have a hard time sitting comfortably in a classroom, because the desks are only fitted for one kind of person. People of color (PoC) are expected to stay quiet and submissive rather than expressing intellectual curiosity, because anything but a “dumb PoC” is a threat to the capitalist patriarchal white supremacist mainstream society. People with a mental illness are not given resources or assistance, and in many cases (e.g. people with autism) they are expected to be in a separate room from the neurotypical students, despite being completely functional besides having a few needs here or there. Many of these are institutional and systemic issues, requiring action from all of us. In terms of the education system, local activism to push for acceptance and inclusion of marginalized people in school is the way to go.

Now, I want to discuss autism and how it is portrayed in media and visual culture. In any given Hollywood movie or network TV show, people with autism are always portrayed as high functioning geniuses who just have some problems socializing. Rarely is it ever brought up that we also struggle with sensory overload and motor functions. The latter including things like writing, tying shoes and more. For me, the former is harder to handle. Essentially, brains with autism, unlike neurotypical brains, do not necessarily filter background processes out. For most people, when multiple senses are being stimulated, their brains lower the intensity and filter them into the background.

In my case, however, many such processes are hard to ignore, particularly sight and sound. So, for example, if I am studying in a room and I hear friends talking, it is difficult to concentrate because I cannot “just ignore them,” as people used to tell me. Nowadays it has become less of a problem, but I would always have to go to the library in high school to study. One scenario that instantly triggers my sensory overload is bright lights – especially LEDs. I was at my girlfriend’s house once, and while we were eating dinner, her kitchen’s LED lights were quite distracting. Combined with her dog’s barking, I had what felt like an anxiety attack. To reclaim my sanity, I had to move to a room with relatively soft lighting and quiet noises.

Returning to my point about Hollywood, I want to analyze some of the stigma against autism, rather than just the misrepresentation. One example that is particularly heinous is “The Big Bang Theory,” wherein one of the characters, Sheldon, who is presumably on the autism spectrum, is a clown. He is a high functioning straight white male, making him the perfect character for network television. There are several moments in the show in which Sheldon’s social mishaps are the butt of the joke. “The Big Bang Theory” is also offensive to many other groups, and I would recommend people interested in knowing more to watch the Pop Culture Detective’s videos on it, which can be found on YouTube.

People of various marginalized identities struggle with the stigma and difficulties shoveled out by society every day, and representation in visual media often makes it worse. Not only does the mainstream media present a lifestyle that is normative and dominant in every way – it creates misconceptions about marginalized people. Therefore, we must call for a culture and society that accepts everyone despite their differences. To fight this capitalist patriarchal white supremacist mainstream society, we all must exercise a degree of love and compassion for one another.

Nero Gallagher