I was pleased to see my book Growing in to Autism reviewed in Meanjin, and flattered to be described by the reviewer as ‘an asset to other autistic people’. The review by Caitlin McGregor, A World Outside a Diagnostic Manual, makes some valid and important points about the dominant representation in the media of white, speaking, late-diagnosed autistics. Autistic people are consistently under-represented and mis-represented in entertainment media 1 and news media 2
However, I was deeply disturbed by Ms McGregor’s contention that in places my book contributes to autism stereotypes by presenting autistic people as a generalisation (even making an emotive comparison to descriptions of dog breeds). As an autistic person and an autism advocate I am intensely aware of the harms associated with autism stereotypes,3 and of ensuring that I do not promulgate these.
Growing in to Autism commences with an Author Note that advises readers that
As you read the book, keep in mind that these are my interpretations of the world and my place in it. As American autistic researcher Stephen Shore famously said, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.’ Some of my experiences will resonate with other autistic people; other experiences will not. We each have different strengths and challenges.
Growing in to Autism closes with an Afterword that reminds readers that:
It describes my experience: every autistic person is different and will have their own combination of strengths and challenges. I don’t speak for all autistic people…
At numerous points in between it reinforces the fact that every autistic person is different. The very chapter that Ms McGregor so emotively critiques—the chapter on autistic strengths—commences with the statement that:
Every autistic person is different, so I am not suggesting that we all have all of these strengths, just that they are key areas where autistic people commonly outshine non-autistic people.
The pervasive, and subconscious, nature of autism stereotypes is evident in the opening paragraph of the review itself. Ms McGregor writes, ‘It’s a very autistic book: powerfully and logically structured, meticulously cross-referenced and indexed…’ This compliment reflects a stereotype. Autistic writers demonstrate a range of creative approaches and structures; read the works of autistic Australian writers such as novelist Kay Kerr, poet Tim Chan and creative writer Lincoln Jones to see this diversity. I also cannot claim credit for the cross-referencing and indexing, a skill I do not have, as this impressive work was undertaken by a (non-autistic) employee of my publisher.
I absolutely agree with Ms McGregor that generalisations about autism that reinforce stereotypes are harmful to our community. This is why I was so careful to avoid them in my book, and why I was both surprised and offended by the claim that ‘sweeping generalisations like some of the ones in Growing in to Autism are erroneous even when they are supposedly positive’.
This misleading statement about my book impacts on me personally as it misrepresents my beliefs as an individual. It impacts me professionally as it misrepresents my knowledge and practice as an autism advocate and a senior autism researcher.
I sincerely hope that it does not deter autistic people, or those who care about the inclusion of autistic people, from reading my book.
- Jones SC (in press) Hey look, I’m (not) on TV: Autistic people reflect on autism portrayals in entertainment media. Disability and Society.
- Baroutsis A, Eckert C, Newman S & Adams D (2021) How is autism portrayed in news media? A content analysis of Australian newspapers articles from 2016–2018, Disability & Society, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2021.1971067
- Jones SC, Gordon C, Akram M & Sharkie F (2022) Inclusion, exclusion and isolation of autistic people: Community attitudes and autistic people’s experiences. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 52(3):1131-1142