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FAAAS, Karen Rodman, and the Autistic/Asperger Meltdown Stereotype

Posted Nov 10 2008 5:54pm

Many of us think that we have no problem recognizing ignorant, prejudiced stereotypes when we see them. I discussed a particularly egregious example when I wrote a post last week about a newspaper article that claimed, without any factual basis whatsoever, that autistic individuals were prone to sudden fits of rage. The article even went as far as to quote Karen Rodman of the Massachusetts hate group FAAAS, who advocates exclusion of autistic children from the public schools, for the proposition that an autistic adult would be likely to explode in sudden rage if "you gave them the wrong sandwich."

As I also mentioned in my post last week, this stereotype has been conclusively debunked in the scientific literature. Statistical analysis has shown that autistics are no more likely to commit violent acts or violent crimes than their non-autistic counterparts (Murrie, Warren, Kristiansson, & Dietz, 2002; Barry-Walsh & Mullen, 2004). Let me say that once more, just to make sure there's no one who has missed the point.

Fact: Autistic people are no more violent than anyone else.

So why haven't we been able to bury this ugly stereotype? Is it because the haters are too strong and have the power to spread it everywhere, no matter what we do? Well, no, that's not really what is going on. To find the primary culprit, the autistic community needs to take a good hard look in the mirror.

All too often, when we get upset because we can't do something that a non-autistic person would take in stride, or when an autistic child gets upset for reasons that the parents may not understand, these behaviors end up being characterized as a "meltdown" or as an "autistic meltdown." Many people within our own community take it as gospel that it is a uniquely autistic trait to lose one's temper in everyday situations. Some of us even write blog and forum posts that describe anger issues as an "Asperger symptom" from which we suffer, or similar language.

And that's just plain wrong. To become upset and frustrated when struggling with difficult situations is not a uniquely autistic trait. Rather, it is a characteristic of the human species as a whole. Such behaviors happen just as often in the non-autistic population, but because the triggering events often are different, our society does not look at them in the same light.

Here's a brief scenario to illustrate the point: Let's say a mother takes her two young children, one of whom is autistic, with her when she does the grocery shopping. The autistic child starts crying because he is overwhelmed by the bright lights and the busy, crowded, noisy environment. The mom grabs a few groceries and hurries to the checkout. Then the non-autistic child starts whining and crying because the mom wouldn't buy her a toy. The mom pays for the groceries and angrily marches the kids out to the minivan. When she gets home, she's still fuming, and after sending the kids to their rooms to take a nap, she goes to an Internet support forum and vents about her son's "autistic meltdown" for the next half-hour or so.

All three people in this scenario lost their temper because they had trouble handling a stressful situation. The autistic kid hadn't yet developed the coping skills needed to deal with the sensory difficulties of the supermarket; his sister didn't know how to manage her frustration when she was not given the toy she wanted; and the mom got upset because of the noise the children were making and, perhaps, because of the embarrassment of being in a public place with two noisy children. But only the autistic kid was described as having a "meltdown."

Instead of using such negative and inaccurate language to describe our own behaviors and those of our children—which has the effect of stereotyping ourselves and giving the haters the rope to hang us with—we should take a proactive and non-stigmatizing approach and recognize that these problems are situational, rather than specifically autistic. When stress becomes a problem, we should consider what changes to our environment would help to reduce our stress. And—last but not least—from now on, let's reserve the word "meltdown" for circumstances where its use is more appropriate.

Such as, for instance, Chernobyl.

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