The way society understands autistic people is changing.
According to new research, not only have perceptions of autism changed — millennials are helping to normalize it.
Hasan Zafer Elcik, CEO and co-founder of Otsimo, an app that helps autistic children develop social and cognitive skills, is thrilled about the shift. When his younger brother was diagnosed, Elcik quickly realized there was no adequate access to treatment, therapy, or other resources for his growth and development, which led Elcik to explore how society understands autism and what influences that understanding.
Half of Americans want more representation of autistic people in popular culture, and more than half (55%) believe that society must do more to be inclusive of autistic people.
Photo by Maximkabb/iStock.
The shift is happening, in part, because pop culture is making important changes.
According to Elcik’s study, 46% of Americans overall feel more empathy and acceptance of autistic people because of more authentic media depictions of the autistic community — a testament to how critical diverse representation can be in shaping positive attitudes.
Over email, Elcik says that “our recent research indicates 55% of Americans believe society should do more to accommodate people with autism, and the very answer lies in this: Doing requires more than awareness.”
With portrayals like Shaun Murphy of ABC’s (not unproblematic) “The Good Doctor” and Julia on PBS’s “Sesame Street,” it’s easy to see why popular culture has contributed to such an important shift.
It’s good news, but the research also offers some frustrating caveats.
While perceptions of autism are changing overall, negative views of autistic people in the workplace still abound.
Otsimo found that while 67% of Americans believe that autistic people can live independent lives, 73% would be wary of the efficacy of an autistic services professional like an IT technician or a plumber.
Similarly, only 24% of the population would trust an highly skilled professional — such as a doctor or a lawyer — who’s been diagnosed, and 53% of Americans would cancel appointments with esteemed professionals who are discovered to be autistic.
Photo by FatCamera/iStock.
Different generations also have very different perceptions of those who have been diagnosed.
Millennials aged 18-34 were overall less likely to “express concerns when asked about their feelings regarding raising an autistic child” than baby boomers aged 55 and older.
“Autism acceptance has absolutely progressed over time,” Elcik says, “which can be attributed to factors like increased media portrayals or awareness of helpful consumer technologies, and it only makes sense that perceptional differences exist between generations. This is indicative of a correlation between perception and maturity, as members of older generations expressed greater degrees of concern.”
Photo by Imagesbybarbara/iStock.
Several factors could be behind these views — such as the fact that there are media depictions that, unfortunately, are still aren’t wholly accurate — as well as generational differences.
But according to Elcik, one of the main problems could be the language we use.
“Many Americans praise the benefits that diverse and inclusive workplaces yield to society, but the logical disconnect is ‘diversity’ not perceived beyond physical attributes,” he says. “Neurodiversity is an equally important component to an inclusive workplace and offers untapped benefits — like an increased capacity to think outside the box — that greatly contribute to the success of an organization. Society needs to shift its definition of ‘neurodiversity’ from the context of disability to unique talent.”
Photo by Pixelfit/iStock.
The report offers some important food for thought.
While we should absolutely applaud this shift in perception, we should also use it as impetus to keep pushing for further progress.
“Empathy,” says Elcik, “must be turned into accountability from the individuals who work in our community — across policy, education and business — to continue promoting the development of advanced and accessible resources, to actively communicate the importance of inclusivity, and to recognize the wealth of talent neurodiversity can bring to society.”
With continued learning, more authentic and diverse media depictions of autism, and increased compassion for others, these changes can keep happening. And they should — because everyone deserves to seen, safe, and valued.