I was on national news recently taking about disability discrimination. For the article I shared my autism diagnosis and also my mental health one – schizophrenia. I don’t talk as much about my mental illness as I do my autism and this response is one of the reasons why. A person commented on the news item that I did not have schizophrenia because I have accomplished so much. I was pretty upset by that, mostly because those stereotypes perpetuate the oppression of people with mental illness. I get these low expectations as an autistic person too and they are not OK.
The thing about hitting me with low expectations is that it is as silly as it is ablest. I am more accomplished than most people who do not have any diagnoses. When people hit me with low expectations, on the personal level it annoys me and makes me think the person levelling the low expectations in my direction is pretty foolish. The problem is that most people are not a ridiculous over-achievers like me. They may be struggling with their own internalised low expectations. So the person thinking them incapable basically validates their self-doubt it makes it hard for them to rise above it or feel very good about themselves.
A few years ago I was very unwell in a mental health context. I accessed a lot of services and had a hard time. But I was still Yenn so found myself having a bit of a leadership and mentoring role in mental health residential settings. A young woman in the housing I was in looked up to me and would ask me questions about life. One day she came up to me and said ‘I have schizophrenia. Will I be able to get a job?’ I told her that her diagnosis did not preclude her from getting a job and that I shared her diagnosis and had a job. I said she was in charge of the decisions she made and not to let anyone else’s negative expectations hold her back. I hope my advice was helpful as I hate to see people’s lives impacted negatively by the assumptions of others.
Some of the low expectations I have come up against include a nurse in the psych ward telling me to go on the disability pension when I actually had a job which was supportive and paid well. Nothing wrong with the disability pension if someone needs it but if you have a job you enjoy and that is supportive, stay with that I say. I had a doozy around my autism in 2015. I attended a dinner at Parliament House as an advocate. I got talking to an executive from a. Major bank and we had quite an interesting conversation. The bank executive then spoke to the non-autistic researcher I was with and well within my earshot said ‘ooh she’s so articulate isn’t she!’ I don’t know what the executive expected but apparently I wasn’t it! One of the worst ones came from myself. Shortly after I accepted my autism diagnosis and at a time when I was struggling with anxiety around employment, I wanted to quit my university degree and work in supported employment. Once again, nothing to be ashamed of working in supported employment but it was not something I needed to do. I had internalised a whole load of negatives around autism and thought I would be unable to study, despite being half way through my degree when I thought that and getting lots of high distinctions!
While I think people should check their privilege as it informs our understanding of others, I think people should also check their expectations. I have a friend who is young and has an Order of Australia medal. I am highly ashamed to say I got confused when I saw the ‘AO’ after his name thinking someone so young couldn’t possibly get an award like that. That was totally ageist and driven by low expectations of young people. We do this when we have assumptions and stereotypes about people. Some of the worst stereotyping happens when people belong to oppressed groups, such as autistic people.
Low expectations can doom a person to not achieving their potential. Given the immense skills and wisdom that autistic people can have this is a waste both for the individual and for society. Things like functioning labels compound this. Those deemed ‘low functioning’ generally have low expectations paced on them and those deemed ‘high functioning’ have unrealistically high expectations placed on them. We need to see people as they are rather than predetermining their future based on assumptions and stereotypes. Instead of assumptions around capability why don’t we view people as they are with all their strengths and challenges and support them to achieve whatever they want to?