The word autism often sparks a range of different emotions in people—fear, anger, love, sympathy. The disorder can be difficult topic because a large percentage of the general population does not understand it. As a result, people get nervous and apprehensive when encountering an autistic individual, or are uncertain of how to interact with him or her. But just as there is a variety of reactions to the condition, there is also a range of severity levels associated with the disorder.
Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are general terms that describe a group of complex brain development disorders. They are “characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors,” according to Autism Speaks, an organization dedicated to autism awareness, fundraising and research.
One of the most famous depictions of autism has been Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant, in Rain Man. Those with savant syndrome usually have a form of autism, but exhibit genius abilities in a specific area. But not all savants are autistic, and not all people with autism have savant syndrome. Accidentally assuming this because of media portrayals can place impossible standards on those with disabilities.
This is similar to the ideals associated with Asperger’s syndrome, which usually includes a normal to high IQ level, but extreme difficulty in social and communication skills. Asperger’s has been one of the more common television portrayals of autism. Characters on shows including “Bones” and “The Big Bang Theory” have been known to exhibit characteristics similar to those associated with Asperger’s. Due its simplified portrayal, people often believe that those with difficulties socializing automatically have Asperger’s or that the exceptionally gifted must be lacking in another area.
Classifying or making assumptions about others without fully understanding their conditions is often the cause of fear and anxiety surrounding the disorders. Earlier this month, Donna Beegle claimed her family was kicked off a United Airlines flight because of their autistic daughter, Juliette. Beegle said her daughter refuses to eat room temperature food, and in order to prevent a “meltdown,” pleaded with attendants to heat Juliette’s food. Shortly after her request, the loudspeaker announced that the plane was making an emergency landing where the family was escorted off the aircraft.
To better respond to these types of situations, awareness and understanding of the disorder are key. Considering this, the media, as a major informational source, has a responsibility to produce accurate portrayals and educate the public. There needs to be a better understanding of the differences between each disorder because appropriate responses can vary. By taking the time to learn, we then can begin to better control our reactions.