I recently went to a fantastic performance by world-renowned musician David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame. He also happens to have Asperger’s, which he has discussed in a number of interviews and is also reflected in some of the songs he performs. He is an incredible example of someone on the spectrum who has used his passions and talents to be a trailblazer in the arts. And this past week, Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old climate activist who speaks publicly about her Asperger’s, presented a historic and impassioned speech at the United Nations about the environment. She is also someone who has used her passion and singular focus to become a leader in climate activism on the world stage.
For these folks, along with people like singer Susan Boyle and fund manager Bill Gross, talking publicly about being on the autism spectrum has been very positive. It breaks down the stereotype of being autistic and illustrates to the world that people with autism can be creative, intelligent, charismatic, female, and highly verbal. I feel it is helpful for those in and outside of our community to know that autism isn’t just a list of deficits to overcome and that neurodiversity enriches–and could possibly save–the world.
However, there is a downside to these individuals becoming stars. Society can begin to assume they represent the entire Asperger/autism community. As many already know, an Asperger profile comes with both strengths and challenges, which vary from person to person. It would be false to conclude that everyone on the autism spectrum has the exact same abilities as these highly visible figures.
Even within the autism community, there can be a counterproductive effect. For many on the spectrum, the challenges–even just to navigate daily living–can be overwhelming. The bullying, shaming, struggles to keep up with peers, the feelings of being an outsider, and the paralyzing anxiety can take an emotional toll. So when people on the spectrum reach the public’s attention, it can compound the negative feelings of those who continue to struggle with their lives and wound their self-esteem. A person may think, “If these people can accomplish so many things while on the spectrum, why can’t I?”
I want to remind the community that there is a huge variation in how being on the spectrum impacts one’s life. Most people with Asperger’s are not superstars. But the real empowerment they convey is that if you understand yourself, find your niche, and take advantage of your abilities, you can find a life that suits you. Most adults I know find and settle into a life that works for them, regardless of how non-traditional or unconventional that life may be to the outside world. Some people are lucky enough to have super skills and find a niche where they can excel. For those people, we can be proud that they have made the world a much better place. But seeing them as inspirational figures does not have to mean creating unrealistic expectations of ourselves or others. Rather we can model their determination, resilience, and passion in order to find our own path.