Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a broad term used to describe a group of neurodevelopmental conditions. These conditions are characterized by differences in communication and social interaction and affect people of different races, ethnicities, cultures, and economic backgrounds. Awareness about it is steadily growing, however, it remains highly misunderstood with numerous myths floated about it. Here are some common myths about autism.
Myth 1: Caused by vaccines
The belief that autism is caused by vaccines is one of the most pervasive. Numerous tests have been done involving hundreds of thousands of people and the results have consistently shown that vaccines do not cause ASD. It’s important to note that the exact cause of ASD remains unknown with current research showing that there’s no single cause.
Myth 2: Autistic people are either geniuses or mentally disabled
It’s important to remember that autism is a spectrum, so every autistic person is different. It’s the same way neurotypical people have different strengths, weaknesses, intellectual capabilities, and interests.
Research however shows that about 28% of autistic people have special talents but the reason is as yet not known. Another study found that 69% of autistic children did not have an intellectual disability. Autistic people can be smart in one area and weak in another. For example, one may have limited verbal skills but be great at solving puzzles.
Myth 3: It used to be rare but now it’s common
It’s not that autism is increasing or is more prevalent, it’s just that more children and adults on the spectrum are able to get tested and diagnosed. Before the process of getting tested was incredibly taxing. In the 1980’s U.S., people had to visit eight to ten specialists before obtaining a diagnosis, something that made it difficult for working-class and low-income workers. Girls were also virtually invisible to the psychiatric establishment until the end of the 20th century. It’s just a question of access to testing and diagnosis.
Myth 4: People on the spectrum are antisocial and don’t have feelings or empathy
People have been known to say things like, “he’s affectionate so he can’t be autistic” or “she makes eye contact so she can’t be autistic”. A child may require testing and be denied it because of such myths. People with autism have feelings and are often so concerned about the feelings of people around them to a nearly paralyzing degree.
People with autism are interested in making friends, they just have some difficulties with communication and social skills, making it difficult for them to express themselves. They are capable of having loving relationships with family and friends. The only thing is they struggle to sense social signals like the subtle shifts in facial expression, body language, and voice, elements which neurotypical people rely on to reveal their emotional states. Autistic and non-autistic people face challenges in seeing the world from each other’s point of view.
Myth 4: It’s for children and you can grow out of it
Autism is a lifelong condition. In fact, in the UK, there are more diagnosed autistic adults than children. People do not outgrow it, children with ASD become adults with ASD.
Research suggests some improved outcomes for people if they get the right support, for example with language and communication anxiety. The reason people associate it almost exclusively with children is because much of the research is centred on them and the majority of the conversations even in the different types of media focus on them. Plus, people are infinitely more curious and worried about the things that happen to children than they are the things that happen to adults.
Myth 5: People with ASD are generally nonverbal
About 40% of children with autism don’t speak while up to 30% have limited verbal abilities. Some children with ASD may have delayed speech, unusual speech patterns, or maybe fluently verbal. Children can improve their verbal skills with early intervention and the help of a speech-language pathologist.
Myth 6: Caused by bad parents
This is not just unhelpful and patently false but also exceedingly cruel to parents. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder and while we may not know what causes it, we know the blame cannot be on parents.
Myth 7: Only boys have it
Autism is more common in boys but is not exclusive to them. Girls are more likely to “mask” their autism by learning the skills needed to interact better with the world than boys are. This often means autistic girls get diagnosed much later in life.
Myth 8: Special diets can cure it
There is as yet no evidence that a certain diet can cure autism. Autistic people, just like neurotypical people may have allergies or other issues that necessitate a special diet but there’s no diet that can cure it.
Myth 9: Make neurodivergent people indistinguishable from neurotypical people
Interventions that aim to make people with autism indistinguishable from neurotypical people end up being traumatic and inducing lifelong anxiety in people forced to “act normal”. Such interventions also treat the person as a problem rather than as an individual to be understood and they make things worse.
Approaches commonly used to support autistic people and alleviate symptoms include therapies like behavioural therapy, play therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy. Massages and mediation techniques may also help people with autism manages symptoms.