Biological essentialism & autistic traits
When I talk about the autistic traits I have or autistic coded characters in the media I relate to, some people are quick to dismiss these traits as “white male autism” and claim that women and BIPOC present differently. This seems like an argument for racial and gender biological essentialism. That autism in different “races” and genders will manifest fundamentally different core traits.
Ironically, classifying traits like “nerdy” and “socially awkward” as being white male autistic traits perpetuates the stereotype that only white boys can present in that way. I’m a late-diagnosed Asian feminine non-binary person, and I relate to being nerdy and socially awkward. Classifying these traits as being “white” & “male” further alienates people like me who already feel alone and invisible.
There is nothing wrong with saying that autism might have a tendency to present slightly differently in different genders and BIPOC because of differential treatment from society. However, it is problematic to dismiss the entire DSM-5 autism criteria as describing only “white male autism”. Unless there are studies indicating that BIPOC and different genders have fundamentally different core traits, that is a misleading statement.
Is the DSM-5 just a white male stereotype?
Autism may have originally been studied in white males, but the DSM-5 outlines broad traits rather than specific manifestations (e.g. “restricted” interests vs “obsessed with trains”). It does provide some examples of more specific presentations but emphasizes that they are not exhaustive.
If you undermine the DSM-5 and say it’s wrong, then how will people get identified as being autistic? What does it mean for all the BIPOC and marginalized genders already diagnosed with autism? For the most part, the DSM-5 is what is used to diagnose autism. There needs to be some definition or criteria of autism that is agreed upon for an autism diagnosis to be meaningful.
What is left of autism if you dismiss all the known core traits as stereotypes just because you personally do not relate to them? How can autism exist as a certain type of neurodivergence if there are no general core traits? How is it defined? Everyone is going to present differently, but there must be underlying similarities if autism is going to stand as a meaningful concept.
Of course, there is room for improvement in how autism is defined in the DSM-5. For example, I think the way autism is described is overly pathologized and difficult to interpret. It’s not that the traits listed are fundamentally male or white. The problem occurs when an individual interprets those traits in a biased, narrow way (e.g. thinking that special interests must be about certain topics).
I don’t have “white male autism”.
Again, I’m neither white nor a man. Was the psychologist supposed to look at a different set of criteria for me? In movies, should female BIPOC autistic characters present completely differently? Would it still be perpetuating a white male stereotype for female BIPOC characters to play the role of a nerdy, socially awkward scientist? Should female BIPOC then play the roles of socially competent characters that blend in with neurotypicals?
No! I would love to see more female BIPOC characters that are nerdy, socially awkward, intelligent, etc. They can be all these things too. These are the traits I relate to.
Perhaps the stereotype that needs to be broken isn’t that autistic people are nerdy & socially awkward white men. The stereotype is that ONLY white men can be nerdy & socially awkward.