The Stereotype Content Model and Autism

Today I learned about the Stereotype Content Model (SCM) in the social sciences. According to the SCM, we judge groups along two axes: warmth and competence. People naturally consider their own group to be warm and competent, but we may judge other groups as failing at either one or, worse, both.

We do not trust people we consider to be cold and calculating, or whose behaviors leave us cold. Having this reaction against the cold and calculating sociopath is likely a reasonable survival mechanism. Such people tend to break down social bonds and destroy trust. Someone who is cold toward you doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Anyone whose actions seem selfish, self-centered, or anti-social makes people judge them as cold.

People with mental illnesses or who are otherwise not neurotypical are also typically treated as cold. This is mostly due to the fact that such people behave such that they live in the “uncanny valley” for most people. I think this may be especially true for “high functioning” autistic people such as myself. This coldness comes more from the fact that we leave people cold than from our own coldness itself. At the same time “autism” does mean “self-ism,” and most people think autistic people have no empathy, so in our case, we are also judged as being cold.

Many people don’t trust business leaders because they judge them to be cold and calculating. They are judged (sometimes rightly, often wrongly) to care more about material things (money) than people. Unlike politicians, business people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how you think about them — they are simply trying to run their business trying to provide you with a good or service you want. Politicians come across as warm because they know that if they don’t, you won’t elect them. The fact of the matter, though, is that they aren’t actually warm — they are cold and calculating underneath, interested only in power for themselves — and they are willing to do anything, including pretending to be warm and caring, to get that power over you.

Whatever people may think of business people when it comes to warmth, most people will at least admit that they are competent. We also judge people negatively when we consider them to be incompetent. That can range from being considered lazy to being physically or mentally incompetent.

The people we look down on the most are those who are both cold and incompetent. Criminals are criminals because they are cold and because they are incompetent to make money in a legitimate way. The homeless are homeless because they are both incompetent to work and because they are either mentally ill or (we think) they must be so cold a person that nobody who knows them would help them in their time of need. We may feel a degree of pity toward them, but feeling pity (vs. feeling sympathy — “suffering with” them) means we’re looking down on them.

I have already mentioned those, like business people, who are judged competent and cold, so let’s move on to those we judge as incompetent and warm. We judge elderly people as being incompetent and warm. We love our elderly grandma, but how many truly respect her? She is still trying to figure out how to use her debit card, after all these decades. We’re prejudiced against her, but not so much that we would want to harm her. We may judge someone on welfare to be either warm and incompetent or cold and incompetent, depending on other traits they may have (or other groups they may be a member of).

Someone who is severely autistic — who cannot speak, who has a difficult time controlling their movements, and perhaps has a variety of co-morbid conditions that make matters worse — is considered highly incompetent and, because, they are autistic, are often considered to be quite cold on top of it. Most people feel very alienated from severely autistic people because of how far outside the realm of normal their behaviors are judged to be.

The more interesting cases are those who, like me, are apparently competent (at first glance), but get judged as incompetent once a few difficulties show themselves. Further, I have to make a conscious effort to be warm, which in this case means to avoid getting stuck in my own head thinking about various things. When I’m making the conscious effort to be warm, I’m not at all pretending to be warm. Quite the contrary — I’m very much being myself, and there are times when I don’t have to make such a conscious effort — but it’s very easy for me to get caught up in thinking about things that interest me, solving problems in my head, and forgetting there are people out there.

I can also come across as unintentionally cold. I can get overwhelmed in certain situations, and so I may not notice people trying to interact with me. I may also misunderstand the social situation I’m in and say the wrong thing, which can make me appear to be a jerk. The more mentally exhausted I am, the less likely I am to behave like everyone else or make decisions others find acceptable in that given situation. My idea of helping is to provide you with exactly what you need, to provide it as efficiently and bluntly as possible, and to get you on your way toward self-sufficiency. Others’ ideas of helping seems to be to have it all done for them, to make everyone feel good about themselves, and to leave everyone not knowing how to do it next time, but at least it’s done now. I will admit that that is a great way to ensure one keeps their job as tech support, but to someone with autism, that’s a crazy way to do things, and it’s frustrating. I have also been told I can be “intimidating” because of my intellect, and if that’s not a word used to describe cold, I don’t know what is.

I have a Ph.D. in the arts and humanities. Those who have been reading my regular posts on art are probably not surprised by that. That should speak to my competence. However, I haven’t been able to secure an academic job beyond a single year as an instructor, or as an adjunct professor. I also haven’t been able to hold down a full time job of any sort, until quite recently. The longest I’ve ever had a job was two years. From that, most would consider me to be incompetent.

I am currently working as a gallery attendant at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). I enjoy the job because I get to work around beautiful and interesting works of art. I also get to think about art and then come write about it here on Medium. My job is to keep people away from the art works and otherwise enforce the rules of the DMA. I also can tell people where to find certain works of art (because of my photographic memory) and I can tell them interesting things about certain works — especially those depicting Greco-Roman mythology. It doesn’t pay much, so from the outside my having this job would mean I’m incompetent, but those within my job judge me to be highly competent (for once). I am trusted to train new people, and I will be giving everyone a training in June on depictions of Greco-Roman mythology in European paintings currently up at the DMA. When the supervisors bring me someone to train, they always describe me as “down to earth” and “friendly.” So at the DMA, I’m generally viewed as warm. Warm and competent.

The result of everyone at the DMA viewing me as warm and competent is that everyone there is subsequently surprised to learn I’ve been diagnosed with autism. Not once, but three times — by a neurologist and two different psychiatrists. There are even a few who deny the validity of the diagnosis, because I don’t seem to fit their stereotypes of how someone with autism behaves. The problem is that while I can mostly hold things together at the DMA — I actually only have to interact with people rarely, and usually under fairly unstressful situations, and usually conflicts don’t arise when you ask people to not get so close to the artworks — I haven’t had the same luck in other jobs.

I have talked about the issues I have had with keeping a job before, but this model helps me to understand a little better what’s going on. It also helps me understand why I end up in certain conflicts. If someone is judging me by my ability to hold a job, I’m to be judged incompetent. If someone is judging me by my publications — by my poetry, by my book Diaphysics, by my novella Hear the Screams of the Butterfly, or by my scholarly and popular publications (google my name and see what comes up, especially on Google Scholar, or see what else pops up searching my name on Amazon)— then I’m likely to be judged quite competent. If you don’t read what I write, then you don’t know me at all. If you do read what I write, you know me far better than you can ever know me by simply meeting me. Of course, if this is true, it may also explain why many view me as cold.

The most favorable thing that has ever been said of me at a job was that I was “a machine.” I was doing some freelance proofreading for a company, and I was working on the project much faster than anyone they had hired had done it before, and with higher accuracy. At my best at work, I’m a machine. A machine, of course, is competent and cold. There are managers who love that, and I do best under them. Most managers, though, don’t want to hire a machine. They want someone with whom they can socialize, with whom the other workers can socialize. I go to work to work, not to socialize; most people treat work as a social club first and foremost. The consequence is that I have a hard time getting or keeping a job — managers start looking for excuses to get rid of me. Because I am considered cold, I have problems with employment, and because I have problems with employment, I end up getting viewed as incompetent.

The weird thing is, then, that while “on paper” I may not look disabled, because of the way people perceive me because of the way I experience the world and interact with people, I end up being in fact disabled. Which means I should probably be able to get disability, but I keep getting ruled against getting it. High functioning autism is a weird disability to have because you’re disabled precisely to the degree people are prejudiced against you. But I doubt a judge will ever understand that.

It is my hope that people will come to understand what they are doing. Not everyone you view as cold is cold. Not everyone you view as incompetent is incompetent. There might be different ways of being warm. There might be different ways of being competent. The fact is, we are all prejudiced against people we view as being cold and/or incompetent. What we need to do is learn to warm up to others, to see them as fellow human beings, and try to really understand each other. We all have our competencies and incompetencies. Unless we’re an actual sociopath, we’re all warm in our own ways (also, we autistics are extremely empathetic — we just express it weird). We need to enjoy and appreciate the existence of cognitive diversity, as that diversity is the origin of so much in the world that is wonderful and beautiful. The world loses much when so many of us who are in fact highly competent are misjudged, marginalized, and misrepresented.

I am the author of “Diaphysics” and “Hear the Screams of the Butterfly,” and a consultant, poet, playwright, and interdisciplinary scholar.

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