autism - heart handsWhat ideas come to mind when you think of autism? Dyslexia? Cerebral Palsy? Disabilities as a whole? These days, we have an increasingly wide access to information about the world around us, and so this means disability awareness has improved. But exactly how does the media affect our understanding?

In many ways, it is all too easy for us to put certain concepts into boxes. Let me elaborate: when someone talks about dyslexia, for example, most people would automatically think of someone who has trouble reading and spelling. We can’t help it, and believe it or not, it is not necessarily a bad thing. The human brain needs to retain information about a topic to draw on whenever that topic is mentioned, so they know roughly what the other person is talking about.

The flip side of that pattern of thinking is that it is all too easy to latch onto stereotypes. We learn much of what we know from the internet, the news, books and what other people know. It is the media that has the power to inform and misinform, and this is where stereotypes can arise. Apparently, someone once asked my mum if I could talk! Others have assumed I am slow, a mathematical genius, unemotional or even prone to tantrums. Sometimes you just have to laugh…

Ever heard of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon? The protagonist, fifteen year old Christopher, has a photographic memory and knows all the prime numbers to 233, but has no understanding of people at all. A good read, but also an unfortunate misrepresentation of Asperger’s, thanks to whoever wrote the blurb. In other words, stereotypes are often a combination of exaggerated truths and popular myths.

And yet, thanks to the ever-developing media, be it news, science or literature, understanding is continuing to grow. You see disabled fictional characters who manage to prove their worth as valuable members of society. Or maybe characters who get to know someone with a certain condition and become a better educated person for it. Ever seen the kids TV show Arthur? One character spends one episode trying to deal with dyslexia and another episode befriending a child with Asperger’s Syndrome. Fiction does play a part in educating the public.

Got more to say on this topic? Affected by any kind of disability? Interested in the media? Any opinions – and possible article inspiration – are more than welcome!

By Grace Liu