I've had versions of this conversation many times over the last fifteen years:
Perfectly Nice and Well Meaning Person: "So, you work with autistic children?"
Perfectly Nice Person: "They are so smart."
Me: "Some of them are, sure."
Nice Person: "Boy, I wish I had an autistic kid. I'd make a million bucks in Vegas!"
In 1988, Dustin Hoffman won the best actor Oscar for his performance in Rainman. For a good chunk of my career, I've had to explain to people that most autistic folk are not at all like Hoffman's portrayal.
Before Rainman, many people had never heard of autism. That movie and subsequent news stories about real children with autism focused on the autistic superman: Children and adults with the ability to memorize the phone book, play a concerto with zero training, and see mathematic equations float in a way similar to Russell Crowe's Beautiful Mind (even though he did not portray an autistic person in the film).
Rainman's popularity shaped perceptions of autism for many years. It certainly shaped mine. In 1993, when I first met a person with autism, it was nothing like I'd imagined. I played with a 4-year old boy named Simon who didn't obsessively keep track of the time, didn't watch Judge Wapner on the People's court, and didn't need to have his boxer shorts purchased at K-Mart. Instead, Simon loved to play with his plastic toy cookie monster. And he liked watching me go down a slide over and over, giggling each time I did so.
He also wasn't a savant. He was just a great kid.
I remember thinking, "This is not what I expected."
I believe doctors misdiagnosed autism in the late 80's and early 90's with regularity, and I am sure Rainman didn't help.
Here in 2009 Autism has made its way into the mainstream consciousness. The rest of the world understands more about the disorder. Still, there seem to be two types of autistic people in most people's minds:
1)The severely autistic, who does not speak, repetitiously waves his hands in front of his face (or some other stim), and is in a seeming fog.
2)The hyper-smart Asperger's case, who, like Sheldon on TV show The Big Bang Theory, works in a lab somewhere, drives a car, etc.
(If you are unfamiliar with Sheldon, here's a great clip from the show)
While there are some people with autism who fit neatly into these two archetypes, the vast majority do not.
I've known many parents who explained about their child's autism to their fellow airline passengers, grocery store shoppers, etc. This can be a fantastic thing to do in certain situations as it often results in help and sympathy for the parent, rather than disdainful glances.
If you are the parent of an autistic child, sometimes it may help to go further than simply saying, "My daughter is autistic." Explaining what your child likes and some of her skills may make for an easier flight for everyone. Smiling as you say, "My daughter has autism, so you may hear from her a bit over the course of this trip. She really loves talking about Elmo, so I apologize in advance if you are not a big fan of his." can make all the difference. Giving the people sitting next to you on the airplane more information about your daughter allows them not only to be helpful and appreciate your daughter more, but also opens them up to autism's myriad aspects.
It took about fifteen years to overcome Dustin Hoffman's performance in Rainman.
It's 2009. We shouldn't have to wait until 2024 for everyone to understand the truth: Autism has many faces.