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National Autism Network


Common Myths and Misconceptions about Autism

Posted by National Autism Network , in Autism Awareness 02 May 2014 · 5,438 views

autism myths autism misconceptions myths misconceptions
Common Myths and Misconceptions about Autism Even though Autism Awareness Month has ended, we thought it would still be appropriate to discuss some of the more prevalent myths surrounding autism. In the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in autism spectrum disorders and a myriad of advocacy groups working across the globe to increase knowledge about the disorder. Despite these efforts, there are still a number of misconceptions surrounding autism that remain widespread even today. This article will discuss ten of the most common myths associated with ASD and provide the truth accompanying each one.

Myth #1:
All individuals with autism are savants or have “Rain Man” like abilities
While it is true that a small percentage of individuals with autism have savant-like ability, the overwhelming majority is no different from the rest of the population. The 1988 film “Rain Man” was released in an era when autism recognition was still in its infancy and the estimated prevalence rate of the disorder was 1 in 10,000. The lack of familiarity with the disorder coupled with the film’s immense popularity likely fueled the perpetuation of this myth until this very day. Individuals on the spectrum who do exhibit savant-like abilities do so in any number of concentrations from music  to physics to art.

Myth #2:
Having autism is the same as having an intellectual disability
Being diagnosed with autism does not necessarily mean you have an intellectual disability. Similar to how only a percentage of individuals with autism have savant-like abilities, so do only a percentage of those with autism suffer from intellectual disability. In medical terms, intellectual disability is defined as an individual who’s IQ are under 70, which would mean an estimated thirty-one percent of individuals with autism have an intellectual disability (according to CDC).

Myth #3:
You can tell someone has autism by the way the look
Individuals on the autism spectrum appear the same physically as anybody else as there are little to no physical markers of autism. Some individuals on the autism spectrum can experience noticeable physical difficulties with motor skills, but these can generally be improved with time and treatment.

Myth #4
Individuals with autism are unpredictable and aggressive
This longstanding myth was brought back into the spotlight of ignorance after the media speculated that the actions of Adam Lanza, who committed the Sandy Hook tragedy, were connected to his Asperger’s diagnosis. In reality, children and adults on the autism spectrum are often the victims of bullying and not the aggressors (perpetrators).  There has been no credible research linking individuals with autism to planned violence and to think that individuals with autism are dangerous in any way is harmful stereotyping of the population.

Myth #5
Autism is the result of poor parenting
This myth can actually be traced back to over half a century ago to Dr. Leo Kanner, who is credited as the first to use the word “autism” to describe children with emotional and social problems. Despite this achievement, Dr. Kanner was also instrumental in developing the theory that proposes a parents’ lack of affection, particularly a mother’s affection, is directly related to the development of autism. The term “refrigerator mother” was later coined based upon this theory. Research has long since determined that parenting is inconsequential when determining a child’s autism diagnosis. There is even evidence that the development of autism takes place prenatally.

Myth #6
Individuals with autism are unwilling or incapable of developing meaningful social relationships
Social deficits are one of the core diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder, but that is not to say individuals on the spectrum are incapable of being sociable. Individuals with ASD experience difficulties with social situations for a number reasons.  However, it is wrong to believe that these individuals are unable, unwilling, or don’t desire social interaction with others. They are not so different from the rest of the population as they also have the propensity for developing close social relationships, getting married, and having children.

Myth #7
Individuals with autism are unemployable
This myth has likely contributed to the shamefully high unemployment rate for individuals on the spectrum. However, the tide is slowly beginning to turn as companies, especially those in the tech sector, begin to realize the potential for employing those with autism. There are certain attributes that individuals with autism commonly have such as: attention to detail and the ability to complete repetitive tasks, that are invaluable in certain fields. There are also businesses, like Rising Tide Carwash, that strictly hire adults with autism.  Additionally, a 2013 study  found that individuals on the autism spectrum are able to prosper in the world of competitive employment after receiving training and supports. Individuals on the autism spectrum should be afforded the opportunity to pursue a career of their choosing and should not be pigeon-holed into menial jobs simply because they require additional workplace supports.

Myth #8
Autism only affects the brain
Autism is a neurological condition that can affect an individual both mentally and physically. Sometimes referred to as a “whole body disorder,” autism can affect the gut as well as the brain.  A recent study  confirmed that individuals with autism have a higher rate of gut disorders causing them to more regularly experience constipation, diarrhea, and stomach pain. Individuals with autism also have other co-morbidities including epilepsy, anxiety, and intellectual disability.  

Myth #9
Non-vocal individuals with autism cannot communicate
A lack of vocal skills does not mean an individual has the inability or does not desire to communicate. In fact, with the help from Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and assistive technology, individuals with ASD can more effectively communicate. This article discusses some ways to help your non-verbal child to develop language skills.

Myth # 10
There is a cure for autism
Just as there is currently no direct cause of autism, there is no direct cure for the disorder. For an individual to reach what clinicians refer to the “optimal outcome,” an individual must no longer demonstrate the core deficits that accompany autism spectrum disorder. Research suggests that early intervention with an evidence-based treatment program is the best way to obtain an "optimal outcome".  

Sadly, these are only a few of the dozens of autism myth’s that are still perpetuated by today’s society. We welcome you to post comments below about any personal experiences you have had dispelling the myth’s surrounding autism or any time that you felt like an individual’s pre-conceived notions about the disorder prevented them from looking past your or your child's diagnosis.

Shirley Peter
May 09 2014 11:43 AM
I believe that myth #4 does not address the sensory overload that causes many children and adults to have tantrums and exhibit aggressive behavior. When my twin sons (who both have asd dx) meltdown in public, the people around assume my boys are undisciplined brats and that I am a poor parent. It is difficult to "educate" your critics while trying to remove your children from that environment. Crying and melting down are their ways of communicating how distressed they are. I believe your list is terribly remiss in not explaining this and other sensory issues.

National Autism Network
May 12 2014 09:39 AM
Thank you for your comment Shirley.  Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about autism and this list only covers 10 of them.  You are correct in that it is very difficult to educate others, especially in the midst of a meltdown, and this is one reason why we make every effort to not only promote awareness, but education about autism.  Thank you for being a part of National Autism Network.
Another myth I'd like to add is the stereotype that people on the autism spectrum lack empathy. While it may be true that it is sometimes hard for us to decipher how another person is feeling without them telling us, this does NOT mean we don't care about other people's feelings or that we don't care how our own behavior affects others. Not knowing is not the same as not caring. This is a particularly harmful stereotype.

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