10 Myths About Autism Spectrum Disorder

There are a ton of misconceptions and myths about autism and people with autism out there. These myths about autism can be offensive, harmful, stigmatising or just plain misleading, so making sure we spread the word about what autism is and isn’t is important to ensure that autistic people receive the support, help and understanding they both need and deserve.

Autism Spectrum Disorder–most commonly referred to as just ‘autism’ and sometimes ASD–affects roughly 1 in 100 people. This developmental disorder is often diagnosed in children but some adults can be diagnosed with autism later in life.

Due to the fact that no two individuals with autism are the same, it’s important to bear in mind that autism is in fact a spectrum. Some people with autism are non-verbal or non-communicative while others may be both highly communicative and verbal. The number of autistic traits and the manner in which those traits are presented vary in just about every way from person to person.

Dispelling myths about autism

Thanks to increasing awareness, research and more encompassing and comprehensive definitions of what constitutes as autism, we know a lot more about autism than ever before. But there is still a lot we don’t know. The important thing is to ensure that we, and those around us, are properly educated as to what is and isn’t true about autism.

Here are the most common 10 myths about autism.

  1. Myth 1 – Autism is a disease
  2. Myth 2 – Vaccines cause autism
  3. Myth 3 – Autism is becoming an epidemic
  4. Myth 4 – All autistic people have a savant skill
  5. Myth 5 – autistic people don’t feel emotion
  6. Myth 6 – Autistic people have an intellectual disability & can’t speak
  7. Myth 7 – One can “grow out of autism”
  8. Myth 8 – Autistic people cannot learn
  9. Myth 9 – Bad parenting can cause autism
  10. Myth 10 – Autistic children are more violent

Myth 1 – Autism is a disease

One common misconception among the myths about autism is that it is a disease. Some people think that autism can be cured with medicine and treatment like an illness and assume that autistic people are therefore “sick”. None of this is true.

The truth

Autism is not a disease. Autistic people are definitely not ill. Autism cannot be cured with medicine. In fact, the word “cured” doesn’t even factor into the discussion!

Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder that can manifest itself in communication impairment or difficulty in social skills and interaction. Autistic people can still live completely independent, meaningful, healthy and productive lives, especially with the aid of therapy and professional intervention.

There are many factors which are considered to contribute to causing autism, from environmental factors to genetic factors. One thing is for certain: it is NOT a disease you catch!

Myth 2 – Vaccines cause autism

There are some people, and not just staunch “anti-vaxxers”, who mistakenly believe that vaccines can cause autism. Even though this is a relatively commonly known myth, it’s actually just not true.

The truth

The story behind this myth is that in the late 1990s a dubious research study was published in a journal that drew a highly tenuous link between vaccines and autism. Not only was the experiment that was conducted not up to scientific standards, it was later completely debunked as deceptive, non-replicable and non-indicative of such a conclusion. The physician behind the study was in fact stripped of his medical license later. Unfortunately, the myth has pervaded over the last few decades despite there being no evidence that there is any link between vaccines and autism. 

As the famous saying goes, “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Myth 3 – Autism is becoming an epidemic

This myth is also a common one. Many people think that autism is becoming more and more common to the point where it can be considered ‘an epidemic’. Even those who might not go this far in their language still think that autism is becoming more and more frequent among today’s children.

The truth

While misleading and untrue, this myth is at least understandable in the sense that the number of people diagnosed with autism has indeed increased over the last two or three decades. What this myth fails to take into account is that this is actually a reflection of increased understanding of autism spectrum disorder. As we’ve developed what the definition of autism encompasses over time, there has been an increased ability in diagnosing autism too. This means more people who previously may not have been identified as autistic are now being diagnosed and then receiving the support and understanding they need. In the past, many of these people may have just been left undiagnosed and simply treated as socially awkward, insensitive, introverted or a combination of them all.

Source: Atlas Foundation

Myth 4 – All autistic people have a savant skill

Another pervasive misconception among the myths about autism, which has only been egged on by pop culture media like the movie Rain Man and the TV show The Big Bang Theory, is that all autistic people have savant skills. A savant skill, caused by savant syndrome, is a very rare condition in which someone exhibits extraordinary and exceptional mental abilities. This might be related to memory, art, music or rapid calculation.

The truth

The existence of savant syndrome is not a myth. It is a real thing. What is a myth is the assumption that ALL autistic people have a savant skill. In fact, no more than 1 in 10 (or 10%) of people with autism display some advanced level of a particular skill. Even among those who do have a ‘savant skill’, the skills themselves are very varied both in type and degree. Autistic individuals often exhibit very specific and focused interest in a singular topic, sometimes to the exclusion of everything and anything else. This means that they might have a higher than average level of knowledge on the specific subject. Understandably, this might lead to confusion regarding whether they have savant abilities, but in reality it is more likely than not simply an expression of their keen interest in the topic.

Myth 5 – People with autism don’t feel emotion

This myth is one that is particularly unfair and harmful for autistic people. Some people think that autism means that the person cannot feel emotion or cannot feel ALL emotions, and therefore have no interest or ability in fostering relationships with others or making friends.

The truth

This myth is simply not true. People with autism are completely capable of feeling all emotions. Due to the fact that autism can impact one’s ability to communicate and socially interact, this is often misinterpreted as being an expression of a lack of interest or inability in making connections and relationships. Autistic people can also struggle with interpreting other people’s emotions, body language and expressions, and understanding social nuances. This different level of understanding and interacting might impact on their ability to connect and socialise but is not reflective of their unwillingness or disinterest. Therapy and professional intervention can help autistic individuals to implement their very human desire to connect.

Myth 6 – People with autism have an intellectual disability & can’t speak

This is another myth that is caused by a lack of understanding that autistic people are all different in their ability and exist along a spectrum. (Hence the term Autism SPECTRUM Disorder.) It is a myth that all autistic individuals have an intellectual ability and/or cannot speak.

The truth

The truth is that some people with autism do also have an accompanying intellectual disability and some people don’t. Remember: autism is NOT an intellectual disability. Some autistic people can speak and communicate verbally, others can’t. Some autistic people have higher IQs than other people and some have IQ levels within the average range. Not only is there a complete range in all of these areas, even those autistic individuals with late developing speech all develop at different rates and to different levels. There is a wide, wide range of skills, abilities, and communication levels among people on the autism spectrum.

Myth 7 – One can “grow out of autism”

Some people think that autism is a stage, particularly experienced by children, and that one can actually “grow out of autism” whether through therapy and intervention or independently.

The truth

One cannot grow out of autism. It is a lifelong disorder and there is no ‘cure’ for autism through either therapy or medicine (see Myth 1). As we keep reiterating, autism is a spectrum and not only are autistic people all affected in different ways, but the level of impact and type of autistic traits can change and develop throughout the different life stages of an individual. Of course, appropriate therapy and intervention can help address areas of specific concern, help support the development of new skills and communication/social abilities, and improve their day to day life overall. Despite being a lifelong disorder, there is absolutely no reason why anyone with autism can’t lead as happy and meaningful a life as anyone else.

Source: Atlas Foundation

Myth 8 – Autistic people cannot learn

This myth about autism is similar to the myth that autistic people have an intellectual ability. Some people think that having autism means you cannot learn or develop new skills. This is just not true.

The truth

We hope it’s clear by this point in the article that autism is a spectrum, and everyone’s learning ability is different. Like with all people, educating someone with autism takes an understanding of their needs, abilities and learning style. Individuals with autism may require more understanding, method adaptation and therapy to achieve the same level of learning, but some may not. Some may be even easier to teach than people or children without autism. Effective and professional therapy can also be used to help autistic people with difficulties learning improve and progress at their own rate and speed.

Myth 9 – Bad parenting can cause autism

The myth about autism that bad parenting can cause ASD is as mean as it is untrue, and it’s VERY untrue. There is simply no evidence or valid reason whatsoever to think that one’s parenting style can cause autism.

The truth

The truth is simple: bad parenting CANNOT cause autism, and it should therefore go without even saying that a child diagnosed with autism does not in any way reflect the ability, love or parenting style of their parents. How did this offensive myth come about? Way back in the 50s, there was a theory often referred to as the Refrigerator Mother Hypothesis. This theory suggested that mothers who were not warm emotionally and could be neglectful or distant would traumatise their child so much that it would cause autism. Of course, this completely bogus theory was debunked scientifically decades ago. Unfortunately, the myth hasn’t been eradicated in its entirety. Like we mentioned before, once a misunderstanding is widespread–no matter how wrong it is–changing everyone’s mindset can be like trying to put a genie back in the bottle.

Myth 10 – Autistic children are more violent

There is a misconception that children with autism are more violent either in degree or frequency than other children. This is another damaging and unfair stigma that has unfortunately caused a lot of pain in the past.

The truth

The truth is that it is certainly not the case that all children with autism are violent and of those that are, it’s not necessarily true that they are “more violent” than any other child who may resort to hitting or kicking or shouting when they don’t get what they want or are upset. Recent research has indicated that violence is no more prevalent among autistic people than others.

Autistic children who do behave like this sometimes lack the ability to cope or express themselves in alternate ways. But many children, with or without autism, can struggle to cope with their own emotions and deal with them appropriately. Depending on the autistic child, they could be struggling with sensory inputs from the environment, may not be able to regulate their emotions or may find communicating themselves particularly difficult. It is not true that an autistic child is intentionally more violent or likely to cause physical harm. 

Don’t stop learning about ASD

There you have it: the 10 misconceptions and myths about autism spectrum disorder. We’d love it if you shared this post with others because the more people who understand what autism is and isn’t, and the more people for whom we can bust some myths, the better we’ll all be.

Autistic people have a right to receive the patience, understanding and support they deserve and if we all recognise the need to never stop learning and growing in our understanding of ASD, the better off we’ll all be.

If you would like to find out more about the autism assessment services and therapy available at One Central Health, please click here

To end off, here’s a great TED talk on what we know and don’t know to further help you with the various myths about autism.

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