[CN: Discussion of the images may be triggering because that’s the nature of media reporting about autism]
I want to write about the images that the media uses when they report on anything related to autism. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are some common themes I’ve noticed.
Trapped behind glass
I didn’t realise that there were different versions of the child trapped behind glass with the red-orange background until I actually looked, but there are. These images are generally available on stock photo websites and have been tagged with autism. Think about that for a moment…
A photographer must have decided to do an autism series, so they found a child model and a glass wall. We are not trapped in our own worlds. We live in the same world as everyone else. Sometimes that world is overwhelming and we need to retreat from it. That doesn’t mean that we’re trapped. It means that we need spaces that are safe for us, and it means that we need support.
We might need to be supported by giving us the opportunity to communicate in different ways – AAC, FC, sign language. Perhaps the people around us could support us by following the same routine regularly. Maybe we need to be supported by presenting information in a visual format. Some of the above will not apply to every autistic person. Some of it will. Find what works for the individual and do that, but don’t decide that we’re trapped in our own world.
Sad, lonely children
I know quite a few autistic children, and I wouldn’t characterise them as a sad or lonely. Sure, some of them prefer their own company, but that doesn’t make them lonely. It is true that we can struggle to play with our age mates if you’re using NT-based definitions of play, but there is no right way to play. There is no need to characterise autistic children as lonely just because they’re happy to be by themselves. Of course, if your child is expressing a desire to play with others, then support them. This could be in the form of providing scripts for them to use to initiate play. It could be arranging meet ups with smaller groups of children so that it’s less overwhelming. Find what works for the individual and do that, but don’t decide that we’re lonely if we’re happy being by ourselves.
Puzzle piece brains
The old favourite. Puzzle pieces for autism. Many people have already written about why the puzzle piece as a symbol for autism is harmful, so I don’t need to expand on that. If this is the first time that you’ve come across the idea that puzzle pieces are offensive to autistic people, please read this from Thirty Days of Autism.
This is a fairly new trend that I’ve noticed, and I don’t really know how to counter this because I can’t quite make sense of why these images seem to be in the process of becoming associated with autism. It’s gross and dehumanising.
That is my point here: All these images are dehumanising. They all depict us as not-quite-people. It is already hard to convince the world that we are people worthy of the same rights as other people. The continual reinforcement of the narrative that we’re not-quite-people through the use of stereotypical and dehumanising images does not help us.
Another point is that if you have another look at these images (excluding the puzzle brain ones), what do they have in common? They’re all white children. They mostly appear to be white boys. Autistic people come in all genders, ages, and races. Autism is not restricted to white boys. Sure, there may be more white boys who are diagnosed as children, but there are reasons for this. One consideration is that many parents of white boys have greater access to medical professionals due to financial considerations. Another reason is the way in which media portrays autism. Images of autism overwhelmingly reinforce the stereotype that autistic people are mostly white boys.
But… but… but… If the media can’t use these images, what images should they use?
I’ve anticipated this question. I went and asked some other autistic folks what images they would like to see in the media.
As an aside, I did this because I do not like the idea of using identifiable images of autistic children in reports about autism. I believe this to be a complete disregard of an individual child’s right to privacy, and it also removes the choice of that child to disclose that they’re autistic.
I would love to live in a world where the decision to disclose is doesn’t need to take future stigma and discrimination into account. The reality is that the current world is not like that. A person who discloses that they’re autistic does face stigma and discrimination. For that reason, the decision to disclose to the greater world should remain one for the individual to make. Of course, if a parent needs to disclose their child’s neurotype to the school in order to ensure that their child receives appropriate support and accommodation, that is a different conversation. Here, I’m talking about disclosure through the media.
Back to the point, the suggestions offered by autistic people included images of AAC users, stim toys, and flappy hands (although not all of us flap in the same way). The most common suggestion was stock photos of people, just people, because that’s who we are.