Recently, while writing something, I was struck by the idea that there is no Rain Woman, no archetypal autistic woman in pop culture. Later, I realized that while we don’t have a fictional archetype, there is a woman who many people associate with being autistic.
If you’re a woman on the spectrum, within moments of mentioning to an acquaintance that you’re autistic or have Aspergers, you’ll often be asked, “Have you heard of Temple Grandin?”
This is a bit like asking a physicist if they’ve heard of Stephen Hawking. Probably, right?
The thing is, the average physicist has little in common with Stephen Hawking. And I have little in common with Temple Grandin.
I’ve seen Dr. Grandin’s speeches, read her writing, and heard a great deal about her accomplishments and her life story. And aside from the fact that we’re both on the spectrum and are women, we have very little in common. She has an advanced degree, is a professor and internationally recognized speaker, and has invented technology that revolutionized her field. She was diagnosed with autism as a child and had extensive therapy growing up. She is unmarried and has chosen not to have children. She’s been known to say that her work takes the place of an intimate partner relationship in her life.
Temple Grandin fits the popular culture model of “autistic equals brilliant loner” and like the Rain Man stereotype, I can’t see myself in that model. For one thing, I’m not brilliant. There’s a huge gap between smart and genius. Smart is getting a perfect grade on a math test. Genius is reinventing the way something is done. I would love to be a genius. Who wouldn’t? But I’m not and, in fact, few autistic people are.
Some of us are savants, some are Mensa-level geniuses, some are above average or average or below average and everywhere in between when it comes to IQ. Some of us are professors or teachers or public speakers. Others work in the service industry or the arts or the military or one of hundreds of other fields. Some of don’t work and some would like to, if only someone would hire them.
The same is true of relationships. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen parents lament that their autistic child will never fall in love or get married or have children. And it only just recently occurred to me why they might think that. They’re familiar with Rain Main or Temple Grandin or Sheldon Cooper (or perhaps some darker, more ominous stereotype, thanks to the media) and have concluded that autistic people aren’t like everyone else. That we all lack interest in relationships or love or sex or marriage or parenting.
As someone who interacts with a lot of autistic adults, I can conclusively say this isn’t true. Many of the autistic adults I know are married or in a long-term relationship. Many have children. There are also people who are not in or seeking a relationship. There are those who have chosen not to have children or who are undecided.
I know that some parents say their child will never get married or have children because at six or eight or ten years old they are nonspeaking or have difficulties with self-care. Without even trying hard, I can think of three people my age who once fit that description as children and they are all in partner relationships. I also know adults who were nonspeaking as children or are nonspeaking as adults and are not in a partner relationship. And I know adults who had typical speech development and are not in a relationship.
Communicating via speech is not a predictor of adult relationships. Nor is self-care or IQ or employability or education or how well someone makes eye contact. Yes, some autistic individuals need extensive supports as adults and may find their level of disability to be a barrier to having partner relationships, but that’s impossible to predict when a child is three or six or twelve.
My larger point, though, is that autistic people are as varied as typical people. There are autistic people who are asexual, aromantic, straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, polyamorous or queer. There are autistic people who are trans*, genderqueer, genderfluid, androgynous, agender or cisgender. There are people who don’t identify with any of those labels and there are people who identity with several or who used to identify with one and now identify with another.
There are autistic people who choose not to have children and autistic people who have huge families and everything in between. There are autistic step-parents and autistic foster parents and, of course, autistic grandparents. Our experience of gender, sexuality, relationships and parenting is complex and multidimensional.
I know that people are trying to connect when they bring up Temple Grandin or Big Bang Theory or even Rain Man. And I know parents mean well when they tell their kids that Bill Gates or Einstein or any number of other amazingly successful and brilliant people are on the spectrum. But how helpful is this, in reality?
Even if Bill Gates or Einstein is on the spectrum, they are once in a generation people. Just like I’m not Temple Grandin, the average autistic kid is not going to grow up to be Bill Gates or Einstein. What’s more, he or she doesn’t have to. Most of us are spectacularly average and that’s okay. We don’t have to have to be once in a generation geniuses to be valuable people.
But what about having goals, you ask. Isn’t it good to have role models? Of course it is. But holding up only the most brilliant and successful people as examples of “people like you” can make a kid feel bad if they don’t measure up. Autistic people are quite literal. A kid who’s told they’re just like [insert famous person here] may think that they literally have to live up to the accomplishments of that famous person. And if they don’t, they can start feeling pretty bad about themselves.
I am not Temple Grandin and the average autistic kid is not going to grow up to be Bill Gates and that’s fine.
I admire Dr. Grandin’s professional accomplishments, but it’s important to recognize that there are so many other amazing autistic people who can be role models. If you look around the autistic community and you’ll see artists and computer programmers and teachers and writers and engineers and activists and baristas and stage managers and linguists and mathematicians and speech therapists and managers and social workers and scientists and athletes and musicians and poets and sales people and business owners and vet techs and moms and dads and grandparents and students and every single one of those people could potentially be a terrific role model for a young autistic person who wants to follow in their footsteps.
Postscript 1: A few days after I drafted this post, I was shocked and yet not at all surprised to see that Emma of Emma’s Hopebook wrote that one of the social expectations placed on her that she would like to reject is “Trying to be Temple Grandin.” If you haven’t read her post about Social Expectations, please take a moment to do so.
Postscript 2: Yesterday I came across a link on Tumblr (thank you ndsenseandsex) to the latest issue of Impact Magazine, published by organizations based at the University of Minnesota, which focuses on Sexuality and People with Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities. I think it’s a good starting place for parents and others who are interested in how they can support disabled teens and adults in this area and it’s available free as a PDF or text webpages.