'What does autism look like?' 20-year-old confronts stereotypes on TikTok

TODAY Illustration / TikTok, Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

Lots of people tell 20-year-old Paige Layle that she “doesn’t look autistic,” from commenters on her TikTok videos to an interviewer at a local TV station. They usually mean it as a compliment — but Layle wants them to know that it isn’t one.

“People are like, ‘You’re too pretty to be autistic, which is stupid,’” she told TMRW. “I’ll go, ‘Oh, what does autism look like?’”

Layle, an eyelash technician from southern Ontario, Canada, went viral earlier this year for denouncing a popular TikTok audio trend that used autism as an insult. “Autism and being dumb are not synonyms, OK?” said Layle in the video. “Hi there, I’m autistic. I’m also the smartest person that I’ve ever met, OK?”

@paigelayle

for my followers, im sorry

♬ original sound - paigelayle

The video blew up, which Layle attributes mostly to “shock value” — the fact that people don’t typically associate smart, outgoing, attractive women with autism. Since then, she’s focused her TikTok channel on autism-related issues, garnering more than 800,00 followers and 21 million likes.

Some of Layle's TikToks are history lessons: One video discusses how the common high-functioning and low-functioning labels are tools from the Holocaust, when Hans Asperger decided that some autistic people could “provide some kind of capitalistic, monetary value,” while the rest deserved to die.

But Layle considers her “most impactful” videos ones that educate viewers on how they can change their own behaviors to make the world more accessible.

“First thing: sarcasm, idioms, metaphors, similes, no. Don’t use them,” she said in a video that provides tips for better communicating with autistic people. “We can’t read minds. More importantly, we can’t read subtext, so just say what you want!”

@paigelayle

when we have to assume all the time, we’re wrong 90% of the time. and you think we’re confusing 🥴 ##autism ##fyp ##ActingChallenge ##foryou ##viral

♬ original sound - paigelayle

Another video lists out ableist comments that Layle hears daily, like, “It’s common sense,” or “They’re so weird. Why are they moving like that?”

Layle wasn’t always so open about her diagnosis, which came at 15 years old after a depressive episode that left her feeling “really done with life.” The belated nature of her diagnosis — relative to her male friend, for example, who was diagnosed as a toddler — highlights the large gap in society’s understanding of autistic men versus autistic women.

“When doctors were studying autism, they only studied males,” Layle said, kicking off a four-part TikTok series about how autism presents in women. “This makes it harder for anyone else to be diagnosed because everything is based off the male brain.”

@paigelayle

learn more about autism! :) i get many questions every day to make more vids about it, i will continue to show you guys! ##feature ##fup ##fyp ##featureme

♬ original sound - paigelayle

Stereotypical autism traits — like being antisocial — often don’t apply to women, Layle explained. In fact, she’s “overly social” and “(gives) way too much eye contact.” Autistic women are also particularly good at “masking,” or copying the traits of everyone around them so that they appear neurotypical.

For women, autism might manifest through other mental disabilities, such as OCD, depression and anxiety. Layle has been diagnosed with all three.

Unfortunately, the range of experiences within autism is rarely shown in the media. When Layle was diagnosed, her psychiatrist told her, “You know Sheldon Cooper from 'The Big Bang Theory'? You’re Sheldon Cooper.” While Sheldon isn't an accurate reflection of Layle’s disorder, he's all there is: Autistic women don’t really have any pop culture icons that they can claim as their own.

Perhaps the lack of positive representation is why Layle’s grandmother immediately said, “No, that’s wrong,” and refused to accept her diagnosis. Or why her then-boyfriend instructed her not to tell anyone about it.

For the next two years, Layle kept her autism a secret, constantly “masking” and never researching the disorder further. She simply “put it away.”

“I think it took breaking up with that douchebag and really accepting myself to then start embracing (my autism),” said Layle. “When he and I broke up, I was like, ‘I can start being myself. What is myself?’”

Layle hopes that, through her TikToks, she can help spread awareness about the realities of autism and break down harmful misconceptions.

“I’m only 20. I still have a lot of life left. And hopefully things can change in the meantime,” said Layle. “But what I really want is for things to change for my kids, and the kids now. I don’t want them to have to go through what I went through.”