There are some strong parallels between being autistic and being trans. Both derive from the way our brains are set up; both set us apart from the majority of people; both are largely misunderstood and even feared. And both have seen an increase in media coverage over recent years.
Celebrities including Susan Boyle, Daryl Hannah and Paddy Considine have publicly stated that they are on the autism spectrum. But coverage of autism has paled beside that devoted to transgender people: I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been more TV minutes and column inches solely about Caitlyn Jenner’s recent gender transition than there have ever been about autism.
The biggest difference is that autism is an invisible condition; there are no physical characteristics to identify somebody on the spectrum. Being transgender is all too visible, affecting one’s outward presentation. It’s perfectly suited for the show-and-tell of TV and photographic media: no need to burden the audience with detail, just give them before and after shots.
For both conditions the media is a mixed blessing. Increasing awareness is a good start but without detail, without providing a deep insight into the minds of those with either condition, there can be no understanding. Awareness alone doesn’t help us.
Such insights are elusive; they must build on a foundation of experiences that are familiar, laying course after course of analogy and asking the audience to incrementally build a picture of something that is foreign to them. No wonder the media so often takes the easy path of simply repeating the same old stereotypes.
But these stereotypes are often harmful, feeding prejudices and serving to portray us as broken, defective people. Autistic people are painted as emotionless and unsociable, unable to form or maintain relationships, objects of pity and ridicule who act in strange, frightening ways. Trans people are often shown as freaks, objects of revulsion indulging in a twisted sexual fantasy. We’re objectified, erased as people.
This is what we need to overcome to gain acceptance: we just want to be seen as people. We don’t want to be pitied or feared, laughed at or persecuted. But mainstream media continues to fail us by rarely if ever educating its audience. I don’t want tales of inspiration, I don’t want the shock-factor of graphic surgery. I want to see our everyday realities, our unexceptional — dare I say normal — existence as we simply live our lives. But who’s going to pitch a TV show about that?
I don’t know how best to raise understanding beyond awareness. I fear that our experiences are simply too far removed from those of the non-trans, non-autistic majority for them to ever gain more than an intellectual knowledge of our lives. How can they learn what it feels like to need to stim to regulate sensory input? How can we convey the strength and depth of the pain when your mind knows a reality of existence at odds with your physical body?
How else will we be accepted and not excluded, othered, erased?