Part 64: Headlines

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you’re all well. While we’re talking about being well, I’ll mention that I’ve finished the course of antibiotics for the absolutely horrible chest infection I’ve been suffering from. The infection appears to have cleared up, but I’m left with a lingering cough and just not feeling 100%. But I’ve improved, and expect to keep on getting better, so that’s good. Something peculiar happened to me while I was at my worst of feeling unwell with the infection, and I don’t know if it was related, or some odd coincidence. My mental state changed. Many autistic people will be familiar with how it feels when you become zonally focused on a particular path of thought. It’s that old autistic double-edged sword; sometimes you can bring incredible focus to something, when your thoughts are zooming down a metaphorical train line with no deviation from the path. But sometimes you can focus in an unhealthy way, and for me, that’s what happened over a period of a few days. I was so focused on one problematic aspect of my life, and on needing a solution to that problem, that I started pursuing badly thought out solutions. This is not the normal me. While I am more than capable of making mistakes and overlooking things, for the most part I take quite a logical approach to problem solving. On this occasion, however, I was so focused on the problem and the requirement for a solution that my response became emotional rather than logical. Was this to do with how my illness was affecting me? Was there some physical element to the infection that actually affected the way I think? Or was I just so ill and run-down that I didn’t have the energy and willpower to think things through clearly? I don’t know. But I look back at those few days of feeling really awful, and my mental state feels like a bad dream from which I’ve just awoken.

The short period of illness came at a time when, as I’ve mentioned often on the blog recently, my life has been turned upside down. This disruption meant I had a lot to do, too little time and resource with which to do it. and plenty of cause to turn my thoughts inward, and to withdraw. Things are settling down considerably, and I feel less like my thoughts are on that undeviating track, and I’m more able to look up and around. I’ve realised I’ve not been paying enough attention to something intimately close to my heart; the autistic community. Things were happening with the community that I had either missed, or had been only peripherally aware of. The thought of losing touch with autistic people I had been connecting with online, and kind of losing my place in that community, shook me a little bit. I need to reconnect. And I need to find out what I’ve been missing. One way I tried to find out what had passed me by was to simply employ a bit of google-fu. After doing some searching, I came across several autism-related news stories that raised my eyebrows, and I want to talk about one of those stories, and its implications for autistic people, this week. So please, come with me…

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The Daily Express is a British tabloid newspaper with a daily circulation in excess of 230,000. With a history of jingoism and xenophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric, and a penchant for conspiracy theories, it’s not a publication for the thoughtful person to take seriously. But many people do take it seriously. 230,000 regular readers… that’s a lot of people taking in the Express’s editorial agenda every day. The reason I’m talking about the Daily Express is that on 2nd November, they ran an article about autism, written by journalist Diana Buntjova. And what an article it is. Have a look at the screenshot of the headline:

Whenever I read any news article about any subject, the first questions I ask myself are; What is the agenda of the journalist and editor, and, What are they trying to achieve? With an article as bad as this one from the Express, I’m unsure as to whether malice is the objective, or if simply trying to cause alarm in order to boost sales is the more mundane explanation, or if it’s basic (dangerous) ignorance on the part of the journalist and/or editor. None of the options are pleasant. In journalism, headlines are everything. It’s not a new idea (see Ogilvy’s words, above); people have known about the impact of headlines for a long time. We either don’t read beyond headlines, or whatever we do read in the body text is irrevocably influenced by the headline. This flash reading has become more prevalent in the age of fast-scrolling internet consumption, when we all to often scroll past an article having maybe only half-absorbed the headline. What we have in the Express article’s headline is the phrase, autism symptoms, which, for anyone lacking in knowledge about autism, presents autism as an illness. Autism is not an illness, though, and the constant pressure from certain quarters of the media to keep portraying it as such is damaging to the public understanding of what autism really is. I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating: people associate the word symptom with illness. In fairness, the article does go on to say autism is not an illness, but most people coming across the Express’s headline will scroll straight past it. You have to have an interest in, or curiosity about, autism to want to read beyond the screaming headline. So the damage has already been done to anyone scrolling straight past, because they have subconsciously absorbed autism = symptoms, therefore, illness.

The online article does try to make a concession to promoting understanding of autism, but it fails miserably: There is an imbedded video from the National Autistic Society that purports to explain what autism is. The NAS is widely seen as a responsible support organisation for autistic people. It does share some useful information, and there appears to be a culture of genuinely wanting to help autistic people (unlike the deception of Autism Speaks). But the NAS is not perfect, and has cosied up with Simon Baron-Cohen by appointing him to the honorary position of Vice President. Simon Baron-Cohen is the driving force behind the Spectrum 10k project, which autistic people are currently vehemently, and quite rightly, protesting against, as it is a program enabling a eugenics-based approach to wiping out autism and autistic people. Although seen as perhaps the world’s leading authority on autism, Baron-Cohen’s theories have been widely discredited, and it is clear from his words and behaviour that he does not care about the wellbeing of autistic people, seeing us only as lab rats he can use to further his research career. Furthermore, the NAS have backed the dangerous so-called therapy, Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA). ABA, marketed as an autism therapy, is widely detested by autistic people, and has been a source of misery and mental trauma for those who have been put through it. So, while including as NAS video in the article might seem the right thing to do, the NAS is fraught with problems when it comes to the people it claims to represent- autistic people. The video, if you can be bothered to wait for it after a tedious advertisement, simply lists a series of problems experienced by autistic people, further entrenching the depiction of autism as a problem, and autistic people the same. So, moving on from the video and the issues with the NAS, let’s get back to the Express article itself…

Assuming a curious reader gets past the headline, they come across this above disclaimer, “autism isn’t an illness or disease”, but they might be forgiven for thinking, Well, if autism isn’t an illness, why does it have “symptoms”, and why is it “crucial” to get checked out? Is this “not an illness” thing just PC bullshit? You can see how the way the article approaches the subject might encourage that thought process, right?

And then we have this:

Two problems, here: The headline cried out, Autism symptoms: Three behavioural signs to watch out for – ‘crucial’ to get checked out. This was screaming at the reader that autism is a scary problem, and if you exhibit the three behaviours, it’s crucial you get checked out, right? But here, in the place where most people have already skimmed or scrolled past, you get a different slant; people who are not autistic can also show some of these signs, and so you can’t just assume you’re autistic, and that is why the checking out is ‘crucial’. That’s rather different from the scare-mongering headline, isn’t it? Now to the second problem with this part of the article: Autism Speaks. You can be be pretty confident when any media outlet publishes an article about autism without carrying out proper research first, that they will mention Autism Speaks. In case you’re not familiar with autism issues, the organisation Autism Speaks is a multi-billion dollar charity that purports to help autistic people – or as it prefers to call us, people with autism. However Autism Speaks is almost universally detested by autistic people, and is quite rightly seen by us as a hate group intent on wiping out autism – which means, of course, wiping out autistic people. Today’s blog is not the time to go into more detail about Autism Speaks, and I’ve covered it before, anyway. It’s enough here to say that by including a reference to Autism Speaks in the article, with no explanation of what the organisation is, or why it is hated by autistic people, the Express has shown it hasn’t got a clue about the subject it is covering. But the die-hard Express reader won’t know that, or be put off by it. Instead, they’ll plough on, absorbing more incomplete, misleading factoids:

While those three bulleted points above contain some truth in a crude sense, what they do is boil down the vast range of autism issues, and the experiences of autistic people, to three short phrases. It’s appallingly over-simplistic, and gives a view of autism so narrow, so flawed, that it is as harmful as an outright lie would have been. Furthermore, as already mentioned, those three issues listed are also experienced by many people who are not autistic. But let me talk about those three factoids, from an autistic viewpoint…

  • Preference for being alone: I like my own company. I find other people hard work a lot of the time. However, I have friends, I have family I love, and I can get lonely. I sometimes talk about how nice the life of a hermit would be, but the truth is, I need human interaction, and most autistic people would say the same. However, we can get burned out by too much of it, especially when that interaction is intense, very neurotypical, crowded, and highly social in nature. I would think most autistic people would agree that while they like a certain amount of time either alone or with few people around, we don’t particularly like being lonely. Sometimes, it’s not that we want to be alone; it’s that the only people around us are neurotypicals who don’t understand us, who makes us uncomfortable, and so we want to be away from them. Saying we have a preference for being alone doesn’t tell the whole story. And of course, it fails to take into account non-autistic loners.
  • Avoiding eye contact: Personally, I do not avoid eye contact. I’ve been immersed all my life in the neurotypical notion that eye contact is a good, desirable thing, and to avoid it is to be seen as shady and untrustworthy. Making eye contact is so forcibly ingrained in my behaviour that, quite often, I can’t stop myself doing it. I don’t always dislike it; just most of the time. Sometimes, I enjoy eye contact, especially with someone I find attractive. But to enjoy it, I have to be expecting it. If someone makes eye contact with me unexpectedly, I find it massively disconcerting, even if it is a person I know well and feel close to. The avoidance of eye contact can be a sign of autism, but many autistic people will, like me, mask it. And there are also non-autistic people who dislike eye contact. You can’t rely on the avoidance of eye contact as a sure-fire indicator that someone is autistic, and you can’t assume that someone who does make eye contact is not autistic.
  • Unusual and intense reactions: The article does go on to say that the reactions in question tend to be sensory reactions. And to be fair, many autistic people, including me, do have difficulties with certain types of sensory input. For example, I have difficulties with conflicting sounds in my immediate environment, that effectively render me hard of hearing. Some autistic people are far more sensitive than I am to different types of sensory input. But the article doesn’t put this in the actual bullet point; it just says, unusual and intense reactions. Autistic burnout and autistic meltdown are real things, and they do not happen randomly and without cause. Strong reactions to sensory overload might seem unusual and intense to someone who doesn’t understand (a Daily Express journalist or editor, for example) but they are the most natural thing in the world to the autistic person experiencing them. That doesn’t mean it’s pleasant for us – far, far from it. But it is a natural reaction to painful or difficult overstimulation. Intense? Yes, for sure. Unusual? Only if you don’t understand it. Over-reactive? No. Definitely not.

Let’s assume we are talking about two types of reader approaching this article: The die-hard Express reader who will gladly swallow everything the Express spoon-feeds them, and the casual browser who might have come across the article online, or maybe picked up the print version in a dentist’s waiting room. What will each think of this part of the article? The die-hard will almost certainly take the bullet points at face value, and absorb them as a definition of autism, or perhaps as symptoms of autism. The casual browser, assuming they made it past the headline, might not make it further than bullet points in bold. In either case, the damage is done; the misleading and harmful reduction of autism, autistic people, and the autistic experience, to a few oversimplified catchphrases. Why harmful? Because every day, autistic people are subjected to casual discrimination and unconscious biases that spring directly from misunderstandings and misinformation, and this discrimination causes untold misery for us. Can the article get any worse? Let’s see… Oh, look at these images they include…

The head-in-hands or face-in-hands image is one of the most tired, cliched old tropes there is when it comes to mental illness, especially depression and anxiety. If you go to google, search for “depression and anxiety” and click “images”, you’ll see this:

You get similar results if you go to Pexels with the same search:

Depression and anxiety are extremely common in autistic people. Most would agree the main driver of the depression and anxiety is not so much the different neural makeup of autistic people, but the difficulties we have dealing with the neurotypical world, and the strange, alien demands that world and its unfathomable rules of interaction encumbers us with. The head-in-hands image always trotted out to illustrate depression and anxiety depict anyone who suffers from the conditions – autistic or not – as helpless or unable to cope. This is, of course, bullshit. Quite often, people who are depressed and anxious have got there after having coped for far too long with far too much. It’s easy to cope, easy to not get depressed or anxious, when your life is not too depressing or anxiety-inducing. A doctor once told me that most people cannot cope with more than two major simultaneous difficulties in life without falling into depression and/or anxiety. So, for example, if you unexpectedly lose your job, a loved one becomes seriously ill or dies, and your relationship with your partner ends, all in a short period of time, you are almost certain to suffer from depression and/or anxiety as a result. This doesn’t necessarily mean you will realise you are ill. You might not even see a doctor, or get a diagnosis; but the effects will be there. I have known people who were clearly depressed and anxious, and coping with it in dangerous ways, and they had no idea what the problem was. Psychological and emotional pressure, sudden, harsh and unrelenting, triggers depression and anxiety. The mental pressure and trauma that can lead to depression and anxiety is something that most autistic people live with daily. This pressure comes from trying to navigate the murky rules of neurotypical social interaction, from the constant sensory overload, from social isolation, from being continually misunderstood and discriminated against, from being bullied for being different in schools and workplaces, to name just a few issues. The life experience of many, many autistic people is one of constant unfair pressure, and if the pressure becomes too much, if we break, it is because it has been constant, inescapable, unrelenting, and grossly unfair. It is because we have coped and resisted for too long, and have burned out. But the Express is okay rolling out stock images of an unhelpful old trope; the autistic person with head in hands, not coping.

Interlude: A brief message

I will never put this blog behind a paywall. I want anyone, anywhere, to be able to access this content at any time. There are costs incurred running this website, however. So if you like what I’m trying to do here, please feel free to show your support with a small contribution via Okay, back to the blog.

When I started writing this blog, my mission was to inform about autism as I learned. As time has passed, I’ve found one of the most important things I can do when informing about autism is to shatter harmful and unhelpful myths about autism, and to answer back when people put those harmful myths and messages out there. The Express article, intentionally or not, portrays autism as a problem, for which it is “crucial to get checked out”. According to the article, autism has “symptoms” which despite the “autism is not an illness” disclaimer, equates autism with illness. The article presents autistic people as problematic, with “unusual and intense” reactions. All these points are inaccurate and misleading, giving a completely false portrayal of autism and autistic people. It tries to boil autism down to a few bullet points, completely ignoring the true scope and rich complexity of the autistic experience. And it references, with no apology or explanation, Autism Speaks, the hate group detested by the autistic community. This article has been churned out with no thought or consideration for autistic people, and has just dumped this misinformation out there to be consumed by the unwary. In other words, it is exactly the type of article you would expect from the Daily Express.

You can find The Autistic Writer on all your favourite social media channels

That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care, be good, stay proud.


Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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