I Don’t Give A Straw about Your Autism Stereotypes

by Shannon Des Roches Rosa

If I had my own reality show, I’d  do a Mythbusters spin-off called Exploding Stereotypes, in which my team and I would travel the world, methodically exploring stereotype histories and flaws. I’d want to start with autism, of course. Should I begin with the “special gifts” savant stereotype, or with the “no empathy” stereotype? How about the latter?

Because people with autism or Asperger’s can have difficulty interpreting body language cues, they are stereotyped as unable to feel empathy. So untrue! My son is not much for conversation, but he can be highly sensitive to my body language, snuggling with me when I’m physically slumped and low, dancing with me when I’m happy. Ours is a genuine emotional connection.

Body language isn’t required to feel empathy, anyhow. How else to explain the actions of the gracious and thoughtful Lindsey Nebeker, who gathered and sent Leo his latest supply of green Sbux straws,  even though she was in the middle of an interstate move? L.U.S.T., the League of Unrepentant Straw Thieves, is honored to have Lindsey join our ranks. And I am grateful to her for living a stereotype-exploding life.

So many straws! Leo says Thank You, Lindsey!

About the Author: Shannon Des Roches Rosa is a mom to three children; her son Leo is autistic. She has been writing about autism and parenting since 2003, and is a co-editor of  The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, Squidalicious, and is reprinted here by permission.

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13 thoughts on “I Don’t Give A Straw about Your Autism Stereotypes

  1. Sunshine says:

    Please buy your own straws and stop stealing from restaurants. It’s a significant cost in all restaurants, and even if you could argue ONE person isn’t going to make THAT much of a difference, blogging about how that behavior is somehow acceptable sort of perpetuates the idea that it’s totally okay to take things like this, and perhaps more people will do it. It drives up costs for restaurants and directly affects the price point they set. It affects everybody who chooses to eat at a restaurant. Your friend “gathered” straws?? They come in packs of, like, 500 at Walmart.

    • Barbara says:

      I’m working on a post positing how everyone has behaviors that on a range of degree are similar to a fascination with paper covered straws – like making sure others know the economic consequences of such a fascination(Sunshine). On that note, I don’t ever use the straws provided to me by waitpersons and always try to make sure the unused straws are put back with those available by someone who does use them – like Leo! Surely I have turned-back enough straws to call Leo and Lindsey even with the whole economy.

    • Marilyn says:

      Surely you can find something a little more direct to the topic at hand which is about exploding stereotypes than griping about taking straws from places. Exploding stereotypes is a much more valuable subject and one that those of us who have spent much time at all around those with autism can expound about in many ways. At my Mom’s funeral it was two adults with autism who comforted me when I was sad. That made me feel so much better!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • outoutout says:

      A post about dirct expression of empathy by autistic people, and all you got out of it was that they stole some straws (in 2008)?? Wow.

  2. I understand about the emotional connection.

    At age 4 months I took my son to the doctor, telling her he wasn’t bonding to me…I babysat a young girl the exact same age and she was all eye contact and smiles.

    “You’re crazy…” my pediatrician said in so many words, “Look at the way he clings to you. I’ve seen failure to bond and failure to thrive, and this child doesn’t have it!”

    I shuffled back into my new mother jitter’s corner.

    My son used to bug the heck out of me because NO MATTER HOW I tried to hide my true emotions, the kiddo picked up on them, and actually “felt the way I felt”, rather than determined my emotions and based his actions on his interpretation.

    It’s just different. “Experts” are too stupid to see that. So they make up a bunch of crap.

    All I can say is thank God for instinct, otherwise all our kids’d be drugged up in institutions. Which suspiciously leads to a good living for the experts. I know I’m on to something, but the right words ain’t coming to me. I can see it in my mind’s eye…

    Sally Gardner, a brilliant author who didn’t read until she was 14 years old, said something like, (forgive my paraphrasing), “You can teach a child the world through a button…”. Perhaps the same can be said for a straw!

    • Emily says:

      usethebrainsgodgiveyou1, my boyo also does this “feel the way i feel”. I’ve had some real depressed times (before treatment) and he could sit next to me on the couch and know exactly what I was thinking. (sadly) He also was held as much as he wanted, carried in a sling, breastfed till 18 months, family bed slept, go on and on. And when I read your expreience of going to the Doc. that resonates so deeply, he’s just been dx’d and i find myslef thinking of all the bonding we did and that it didn’t help. but, there is only different, as you say. My big girl drew a picture about autism and all the negative things people say about it or about her brother all around the picture and then in bold also throughout was the word Different – that is the reality. aww.

  3. We buy our straws now, and have for three years — this post is originally from 2008.

    Thanks for featuring this post, Rachel.

  4. Jaketta says:

    While I respect your comment about taking straws from restaurants, this is not the forum to make that case.

    • CelticRose says:

      Then what is the proper forum? Should we avoid speaking out about wrongdoing because “now is not the right time”? There is no wrong time to speak out for what we believe is right.

      Sunshine makes a very good point. Thievery, no matter how petty, is still stealing, and unfortunately people are very good at ignoring or finding an excuse for theft when it’s in their interest. Saving the straw that the waitress handed to you with your meal is one thing (that straw would have to be discarded, used or not, due to health regs), but grabbing extras is theft and everyone has to pay for that with higher prices or the restauarant takes a loss.

      I am very glad that Shannon says that they buy their straws now, not only because of the theft issue but because of the lesson that such a cavalier attitude toward theft teaches the child. Has no one considered that the actions and attitudes as described in this post and the link to the League of Unrepentant Straw Thieves teaches the child that it is okay to take things that don’t belong to them as long it’s for their special interest? What happens if they develop a special interest in something more expensive than straws? An autistic child might not understand intuitively that taking straws is “okay” but taking toy cars is not — to them it would appear to be the same type of action: taking the object they’re obsessing on.

      Sunshine, I apologize for not backing you up sooner, but I was having one of my “autistic moments” (I’m a self-diagnosed Aspie) and was having difficulty talking to anyone, even over the internet.

  5. Rachel says:

    I’ve been watching this conversation for the past couple of days, and I don’t think the problem is that someone raised the issue of how much money it costs a restaurant when people help themselves to straws. That seems a valid point and a good thing for people to know, especially given the struggles of business owners to keep going in this economy. So I appreciate the point being raised.

    The problem is that the criticism wasn’t prefaced with some words of support for the whole point of Shannon’s piece — that autistic people are caring and empathetic — and that it was said in an angry tone. It probably would have worked better for the original commenter to have phrased the comment along the lines of, “Perhaps you haven’t considered it, but it’s very costly for restaurants to buy straws when people take too many.” And I think that for another person to brand it “thievery” probably doesn’t help matters, because even if it’s technically thievery, it was done without consciousness of that fact, and to call it such seems a bit harsh in this instance (at least to me).

    Of course, many of us are a bit blunt, myself included, and so can sometimes come across as being less supportive than we actually feel. I’d ask anyone reading here to keep in mind that it’s usually a good idea to preface a criticism with an expression of praise or understanding for the writer. Every writer whose work is posted on this site is very supportive of what we are trying to accomplish, and it’s important to me that people acknowledge that support before disagreeing or criticizing — both of which everyone is welcome to do with passion and civility.

  6. I would also like to note that Lindsey did not steal the straws she sent to Leo.

    • Julia says:

      Hi,
      I’ve been trying to get that issue clarified for some time (not about the straws, but about the empathy!:)
      I hate it when ASD gets characterized by a lack of empathy. That’s so far from the mark that, in my opinion, all it shows is the lack of understanding and empathy of those who say it. My son Sam is one of the most caring, sweet, warm and sensitive people you’d ever want to meet. (For small instance, what other 12 year old boy you know would worry so much about the homeless people on the streets of Berkeley? or concern himself about the comfort and feelings of various pets and animals? Or run up to give his mom a big hug and kiss when she picks him up for a school field trip? ) The lack, as you point out, is not in the heart or emotional capacity, it’s in the communication of those various odd human signals and signs that come so much more easily and naturally to the rest of us. Get rid of that myth of the unfeeling unempathetic autistic! As I often point out, those who really lack empathy are called psychopaths, and i’ve heard they can be very astute readers of subtle human cues.

  7. I’m really late to this conversation, so I apologize, but I just discovered this post.

    Shannon – My son collects things of interest to him, too, like car keys, hand sanitizers. And for those adults who choose to connect to him through his interests, that effort touches me. It is a kindness that will not go unrecognized.

    About Sunshine’s comment? For me the most troubling part of your comment was that you jumped to a conclusion. She may (and, in fact, did) obtain those straws legitimately and lawfully.

    I take this example as a way that our thinking can sometimes be flawed and we should examine other options that explain the facts *before* we accuse someone.

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