Our understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has come a long way since 1908, when the word autism was first coined.
Unfortunately, not all of the information available online today is rooted in fact and research. The internet is an incredible innovation, but it also enables the spread of myths and misperceptions, which can make it hard for parents and caregivers of children with autism to separate fact from fiction.
Today, 1 in 44 children are diagnosed with autism. And I know what it's like firsthand. As a speech-language pathologist who has a family member diagnosed with autism, I think it’s about time we set the record straight on what autism is and, more importantly, what autism isn’t.
I’ve compiled a list of the top myths I’ve heard and read over the years. By breaking down each one, my hope is that this information can help you make more informed decisions about your loved one's care and wellbeing.
Let's jump in!
MYTH: Autism is a disease
TRUTH: Autism is not a disease. You can’t catch autism like a cold. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that usually appears during early childhood. It can impact one’s ability to understand language, communicate with others, partake in social interactions, self-regulate, and independently complete activities of daily living (ADLs) like brushing one’s teeth, getting dressed, or preparing food.
MYTH: Autism can be cured
TRUTH: Autism is a lifelong disability that cannot be cured with medicine or a special diet. In addition, there is no universal, one-size-fits-all treatment that works for everyone.
However, with appropriate interventions (such as speech therapy, behavioral support, occupational therapy, and physical therapy), many autistic individuals can live independent, productive, and comfortable lives. The goal of this treatment is to help maximize a person's ability to function, reduce symptoms of autism, and support their early learning skills and development.
With so many interventions available, it’s important to work with your healthcare provider to find a strategy that meets your child’s needs.
MYTH: Only males have autism
TRUTH: Both males and females can be diagnosed with autism. This myth most likely persists because autism is 4 times more prevalent in males than females. However, that does not mean females can’t be autistic. Some females may “camouflage” their symptoms for longer and more easily learn how to interact with the world. This may explain why so many females are diagnosed much later in life.
MYTH: All autism is the same
TRUTH: Autism is different for everybody. Autism is a “spectrum” disorder, meaning that the characteristics and severity levels will vary from person to person.
Characteristics of autism can include delayed, limited, or no speech, limited receptive skills, poor language skills, extreme sensitivity to sound or touch, repetitive behaviors, impaired social skills, and seizures.
These differences can be assessed and evaluated by a professional. Saying all autistic people are the same is like saying “all snowflakes are the same” - it’s simply not true.
MYTH: Vaccines cause autism
TRUTH: Vaccines do not cause autism. This is an unfortunate and fraudulent myth. The root cause of this belief was a false research paper that was ultimately found to be deceptive, and the physician who authored and promoted this falsehood was stripped of his medical license. There is no scientifically proven link between vaccines and autism. Vaccines save lives.
MYTH: Individuals with autism do not feel emotions
TRUTH: This myth drives me nuts! From my personal life to my work experiences as a speech-language pathologist, I’ve seen firsthand that autistic individuals have many emotions to share. They sometimes just don’t have the skills to properly express them. That’s a very important distinction!
When children cannot use verbal or nonverbal language to express their emotions appropriately, they may become frustrated and engage in unwanted or maladaptive behavior (such as self-harm or hurting others).
Also, just because someone isn’t displaying an emotion on their face, or talking about it verbally, doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling an emotion! Several years ago, I was evaluating an 11-year-old boy with autism who was nonverbal and used an app on his iPad to communicate. When I first evaluated him, his parents reported that he often hit himself or others and they didn’t understand why, especially because he had the communication tools. Within 30 seconds, I realized the reason. The only thing this poor child could talk about on his iPad was Trader Joe's! Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Trader Joe's, but I don’t perseverate on the topic. We have to give individuals with autism the emotional language and skills to express themselves.
MYTH: Individuals with autism are not social
TRUTH: Many autistic individuals can develop social skills. And just because they may need extra support with social skills doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy interacting with people and maintaining relationships. Everyone shows their social skills in different ways. Some people are introverted and shy, thus avoiding social situations altogether, while others say way too much and have difficulty having a two-way conversation.
Nonverbal forms of communication (such as body language, tone of voice, sarcasm) tend to be confusing for autistic people. While this can sometimes make it more challenging to establish friendships or be successful in a work environment, intervention can often help.
MYTH: Bad parenting causes autism
TRUTH: Parenting style is not a cause of autism. This myth isn’t just untrue and disproven, it’s especially cruel. It stems from the work of Bruno Bettelheim, who first coined the term “refrigerator mother,” positing that autism was caused by mothers who were cold to their babies. Needless to say, this work has been utterly discredited. If only autism could be prevented by giving more hugs!
The reality is there is actually no known cause of autism. It’s a complex disorder and symptoms can vary dramatically. With that said, today most researchers agree that certain risk factors, such as genetic and environmental factors, can increase a person’s likelihood of diagnosis.
MYTH: Autism is a childhood condition
TRUTH: This clearly can’t be true since children with autism eventually become adults with autism. Autism is lifelong, and for this reason it’s imperative that we take a long view towards intervention and support.
MYTH: Individuals with autism cannot be employed
TRUTH: Autistic people can have enjoyable and productive jobs. Many adults with autism are absolutely capable of working, given the opportunity. And with the right support and accommodations, employment can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience.
However, what’s important is that we don’t generalize or paint autistic people in broad strokes. It’s about finding a job that fits best for each person. These often can be jobs that have a consistent schedule and clear expectations, although others may do better in an entirely different environment.
For businesses, hiring people with disabilities, including those with neurodiversity, isn’t just the right thing to do - it can be good for business. Autistic people offer a different perspective, are hard working, and often demonstrate trustworthiness, reliability, attention to detail, and many other benefits.
MYTH: All individuals with autism are either savant geniuses or intellectually disabled
TRUTH: Autistic people are as unique and diverse as people without autism. Pop culture has been the culprit for egging on this myth. Movies and shows like “Rain Man” and “The Big Bang Theory” offer the notion that autistic people have savant-like skills.
Being a savant is a very rare condition in which someone exhibits exceptional mental abilities, such as memory, art, music, or fast mathematical calculation.
On the other hand, if an autistic person is not a savant, there’s a perception they must be intellectually disabled.
Neither of these perceptions is true. Autism is not black or white, and there are many different shades of autism on the autism spectrum.
There you have it! Just a few of the many myths about autism spectrum disorder that are incomplete, misguided, or factually incorrect. I challenge you to continue questioning what you read and hear online and through the grapevine.
At the end of the day, what's most important is that we continue to accept and celebrate neurodiversity, including those with autism, cherishing everything they have to offer!